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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.