Luxembourg’s free public transport sounds great. It isn’t

Trams, though. Image: Getty.

When the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg announced it would introduce free nationwide public transport from March 2020, the move was widely praised – some even claimed it was a world first, though that was to overlook Estonia) where the government introduced countrywide free public transport in 2018.

Even US senator Bernie Sanders offered his congratulations via Facebook. Luxembourg was suddenly in the limelight, and this time it wasn’t about tax havens or information leaks – it was something positive, heartening, virtuous.

The move has been great for Luxembourg’s image, but local users of the transport system have looked on in bemusement, if not confusion. They know that the public transport system is a mess, so it’s difficult to credit that Luxembourg’s sudden glory is well deserved. Indeed, we think there’s a good chance that making public transport free will actually make things worse for commuters.

To see why this feted policy is likely to end up backfiring, it’s necessary to understand the nation’s growing pains. Luxembourg is a small sovereign state, comprised of its capital city, small towns, and countryside – an urban region with a dispersed urbanisation around the main centre, spreading across the borders with Belgium, France and Germany. Having benefited from sustained growth, Luxembourg likes to present itself as a haven of stability and prosperity.

Luxembourg’s thorny problem

Luxembourg’s economy is supported largely by the financial sector, the European Union, and the booming industries of technology and innovation. It is home to more than 140 banks and has become a hotspot for specialised investment services. Luxembourg city is a European capital, home to the European Investment Bank, the Parliament Secretariat and the Court of Justice. Luxembourg has also attracted major players in the digital economy: Amazon, Skype and PayPal have headquarters there, and Google is considering establishing a data centre in the countryside.

As a result of these strategies, Luxembourg is a small but unusually international state; an economic engine that requires – and attracts – massive influxes of labour from neighbouring countries. Currently, roughly 422,000 people work in Luxembourg, while the country itself has a resident population of just over 600,000. Many of these jobs are located in the business districts in and around the capital city.

Almost half of the labour force (192,000) are cross-border commuters. Due to substantial immigration (Luxembourg’s population grows by 2.3 per cent every year) and the immense supply of office space, housing inside Luxembourg is scarce and costly.

The government is intent on continuing economic growth to preserve living standards and maintain the social security system at current levels. And so far it has succeeded: GDP grows steadily by 2 per cent to 4 per cent anually. Indeed, Luxembourg’s per capita GDP is among the highest in the world.

Yet this growth has also put a lot of pressure on the transport system. Roads, rail tracks and stations are in a dire state, and government funding has not caught up with current demand and delayed investments from the past. It is precisely this growth pressure that makes the problem really thorny and economic sustainability rather difficult to achieve.

During rush hours, trains coming in from the border regions are standing-room only – and are often late or cancelled – causing passengers to miss connecting services. Customer service and information is relatively poor. Ironically, the massive infrastructure investments recently initiated by the government have only generated more construction sites, bottlenecks and road blocks – at least for now.


If only it worked

Making public transport free looks set to make the situation worse. Fares are already heavily subsidised; a single fare between any two points in the country is €2, day passes are €4, and minors already ride free. So a further reduction is not likely to have a significant impact.

In this context, the notion that free transport is a means of wealth redistribution and social inclusion doesn’t square. It’s already cheap – and far outweighed by exploding housing costs, the country’s real inequality challenge. And, price is only one factor in an individual’s choice of transport. This means that pricing alone won’t likely trigger major changes in travel behaviour.

What’s more, when users realise that the system doesn’t work, there will be few alternatives available to them. Many will choose to go by car because it is faster and more reliable – while those who cannot afford that option, or are unable or simply do not like, to drive, will bear the burden. Ultimately, it will be taxpayers who compensate the revenue lost through declining ticket sales. This includes the cross-border commuters, who won’t benefit from the free transit inside Luxembourg, having paid their fares before the border.

In any case, serious attempts to mitigate the nation’s car culture are yet to arise. Cars remain an important status symbol for many residents and, at last count, Luxembourg had the highest number of cars per inhabitant in the EU. Education would be needed to overcome this addiction, but policies aimed at reducing car use are so unpopular as to be politically taboo, especially given the high incomes and low gasoline prices offered by the state.

Now it seems as though the attention-grabbing policy had less to do with solving public transport problems, and more to do with the government’s ongoing nation-branding campaign. This is the crux of the issue – the announcement of free public transport has created a good news story which, having circulated through the global media, has already fulfilled its purpose. Real problems and the profound difficulties in solving them are not addressed.

The whole idea of free public transport is utterly simplistic because of the complex, interrelated composition of demographic, socioeconomic and geopolitical issues at stake. If political leaders are serious about improving mobility, then they will need to undertake a more serious analysis of the problems, and provide a more convincing, context-sensitive set of proposals to solve them. But maybe that doesn’t matter, as long as it looks good.

Constance Carr, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Luxembourg and Markus Hesse, Professor of Urban Studies, University of Luxembourg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.