Free Public Transportation: The Future of Sustainable Cities?

All eyes will be on Luxembourg to see how erasing transit fares will build a healthier urban environment.

Nathaniel Bahadursingh Nathaniel Bahadursingh

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When considering what makes for award-winning transportation infrastructure, it might be worth rethinking the economics of public mobility at a fundamental level. For precedent, look to Luxembourg: In a move to reduce traffic congestion and emissions, the small European country has made all forms of public transportation free. It is the first country to enact such a policy on a nationwide scale.

The plan, originally announced last March, directly addresses Luxembourg’s poor traffic conditions. For starters, according to EU data, the Rhode Island-sized nation of nearly 614,000 people has the highest rate of car ownership in Europe, at 670 cars per 1000 people in 2017. Furthermore, data also reveals that drivers in Luxembourg spend an average of 30 hours stuck in traffic each year, among the highest in Europe. 

The nation’s capital, Luxembourg City, accounts for a majority of the country’s traffic issues. According to the Luxembourg Times, the capital has the sixth-worst congestion for a global city with a population of less than 800,000. And, in 2019, according to an annual index produced by Dutch location technology firm TomTom, Luxembourg City motorists spent an average of 163 hours driving in rush hour traffic. 

Private cars are the most used form of transport in Luxembourg; Photo by Ryhor Bruyeu/Alamy

A primary culprit behind this is the large number of people who commute into Luxembourg City everyday due to the close proximity of neighboring Germany, France and Belgium. Approximately 214,000 people come in and out, according to Deutsch Welle, due to the extreme cost of living in the city itself.

Now that public transportation is free in the country, the government hopes that a large portion of people will stop commuting in cars. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “…commuters are encouraged to ditch their cars at the border and take advantage of Luxembourg’s now-free public transit system instead.”

As reported by Agence France-Presse, Luxembourg transit officials expect that eliminating fares will affect close to 40 percent of the country’s households, with each saving about $112 in transit fares annually. A new modern tramway line has also been constructed to help further alleviate congestion. This is an example of transit-oriented development that can arise as a consequence of increased public transport ridership.

Transit-oriented development fosters sustainable urban growth; image via Coldwell Banker Commercial

Transit-oriented development combats urban blight — including traffic congestion and pollution — through the creation of compact, walkable, pedestrian-oriented and mixed-use communities centered around high quality transit systems. It promotes sustainable urban growth, crafting more walkable areas and reducing the land area dedicated to motorized vehicles. According to Coldwell Banker Commercial, transit-oriented development can attract more investors, reduce congestion and facilitate increased activity by older adults. 

Cutting transit fares may be the catalyst to effective and widespread transit-oriented development. It is also important to note that similar actions have been taken in the United States to boost public transit ridership. According to Car and Driver, Kansas City, Missouri, several American sports franchises, and Olympia, Washington, have taken actions to provide free public transit services. 

Eyes will definitely be on Luxembourg to see how successful this measure proves to be in the long term. Though the impacts of going fare-free will vary on a case-by-case basis, Luxembourg will stand as an example to other countries and cities considering the move.

Got a project that makes your city better? The 8th Annual A+Awards is inviting entries to the following categories: Transport infrastructure, unbuilt transportation, transportation interiors, urban & masterplans and unbuilt masterplansSubmit your projects before March 27th to be in the running.

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