How free public transportation could ease the climate and congestion

UPDATE APRIL 2022: All around the globe, cities and smaller towns are noticing the benefits that come from free public transport. What to some people might appear as impossible was already achieved in over 100 cities around the world, with more many to come!
How free public transportation could ease the climate and congestion

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the European Transport Forum (ETF), a platform for open debate on the future of European Transport, to provide insights on hot topics dealing with mobility. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect an official position of Volvo.

Furthermore, this article was originally published in April 20, 2020 and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness

In March 2021, Luxembourg became the first country in the world to offer free public transport throughout the country for all modes - trams, trains, and buses. The scheme applies to residents, cross-border commuters, and tourists alike. According to the Luxembourgish Ministries, making the public transport public free will help the country not only to address the issue of having more cars per 1,000 people than anywhere else in the EU, but also to alert residents to their country's environmental problems and invest in the transport network to cope with an already big increase in passengers.

How much does it cost? Public transportation in Luxembourg wasn’t extremely pricey with a fare of €2 and €4 for a day pass. The lost fare revenue – €41 million – covers less than 10% of the network’s nearly €500 million operating costs, which is seen by the Luxembourgish Ministries as relatively small. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that "[…] just because I call it free transport doesn't mean nobody pays," said Franois Bausch, Luxembourg's green party, déi Gréng, while indicating that the lost revenue cost will be covered by the taxpayers.

Following the example of Luxembourg, many more countries are noticing the environmental and social benefits of free transport. On 1 October 2022, Malta will become the second country in the world to make its public transport system free for all residents. Currently, Germany is considering making their public transit system fare-free in response to the EU's threatening to fine them for their air pollution levels. Since 2021, Brussels’ public transport operator offers its services free of charge for travellers under the age of 25. Hwaseoung City in Korea also plans to implement free transportation and to convert its fleet to eco-friendly modes such as electric and hydrogen.

But would free public transport induce a further model shift from car to public transport? Eliminating fares alone will not automatically encourage people to swap their automobiles for public transport. Out of many others, the transport authorities will need to improve public transport systems, focus on route and destination optimization, and increase the comfort of public transport to pull in users. In the future, they should also think about replacing car lanes with exclusive bus lanes, eliminating parking and implementing congestion fees which would potentially push private vehicle owners to use public transit. 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE 20/04/2020: Cars are potent symbols of personal freedom. They also contribute to the climate crisis through their greenhouse gas emissions, and they clog up city streets. How can their downsides be tackled?

Cities have a few options, including pedestrian zones, speed limits and congestion charges. Some advocates extoll the virtues of bicycles, scooters, walking and even working from home.

Free public transport


And there is public transport, which is very effective in reducing cars on the road, and often enjoys dedicated routes (trams and trains of course, but also bus lanes). Public transport can be costly: depending on the country or city, each journey fare or subscription can add up. So how can people be incentivised to take the bus or subway?

Some public authorities are taking the plunge by offering free public transport for all. That is what the city of Dunkirk in France is doing, and what Luxembourg will roll out across its entire territory. Public buses have been completely free of charge since 2018 in Dunkirk and surrounding areas, even including the cross-border bus line between Dunkirk and De Panne in Belgium. Dunkirk mayor Patrice Vergriete says the main aim is social: allowing people to make trips and be more mobile, especially in a city where over a quarter of households do not have a car. Sustainable mobility is, he says, an added benefit.

Spreading across the world

The measure has been combined with better infrastructure and services. The bus network has been extended, with special lanes. The fleet has expanded and is more regular. There are more drivers, the fleet has wifi and includes new greener vehicles that run on natural gas.

Free urban transportation is spreading across the world. In 2013, Tallinn in Estonia became the first European capital to offer fare-free service on buses, trams, and trolleybuses.

Luxembourg is an even more ambitious project. It is, by some margin, the richest country in Europe per capita. Some 86% of Luxembourg’s households own cars (compared to 81% in metropolitan France, 82% in Belgium and 78% in Germany), with 8% of households owning three cars and 3% owning four cars or more. Luxembourg City is home to about 110,000 people, and a further 400,000 commutes into the city to work. One study found that drivers in the capital spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams in 2016.

Like in Dunkirk, cutting congestion and emissions are not the main drivers of the free public transport in Luxembourg – rather, it is primarily a social measure to cut the gap between rich and poor. But Luxembourg has much more work to do to improve public transport infrastructure:  aims to carry 20% more people by 2025 with reduced rush-hour congestion

It remains to be seen whether Luxembourg’s measure will do as it promises: reducing wealth inequality and car use. Free public transport has its critics, including French transport union UTP, which says it is often associated “with a lack of value and, by extension, a lack of respect”. And studies show that the schemes can have varying results across cities and territories.

But as the world works to address the many challenges of our time – from the climate crisis to mobility and inequality – free public transport has proven it can be part of the response, at least in certain circumstances.