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Luxembourg Declared Free Public Transit for All—Should the US Be Next?

By: Bridget Clerkin January 8, 2019
Free public transit is an important goal of Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who wants to reduce the number of cars on the road in the small country.
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The holiday season may be the time for giving, but even against that backdrop, Luxembourg has gone the extra mile.

Near the end of 2018, the tiny European nation promised to make public transportation free for all, making it the first country in the world to offer such a service. The concept was introduced in early December by Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, shortly after he was sworn in for his 2nd term.

With just over 560,000 residents, the country’s entire population pales in comparison to that of many US cities, even those not considered major metropolitan areas.

Still, the nation shares no small amount of issues with regions many times its size, including America.

For one, it’s a land of perpetual commuting, with more than 180,000 citizens—nearly a third of the population—traveling outside of the country for work. And to get to those far away offices, Luxembourgers have embraced the concept of personal conveyance on a scale rarely seen across the world.

The country counts 662 cars for every 1,000 people, making it the most auto-dense member of the European Union. The figure even brings the tiny nation in league with the notoriously vehicle-hungry US, which boasts a cars per capita count of more than 800 per 1,000 residents—the highest such total in the world.

And just like in the States, the desire for a personalized ride has caused some serious consequences for Luxembourg’s roads. For example, a 14-mile pass, which would regularly take under a half-hour to drive, requires more than an hour to get through in the worst of times, thanks to all the extra vehicles en route.

The compounding congestion was a big push behind the free transportation policy, with Luxembourg officials hoping a greater embrace of mass transit will lead to clearer roads overall.

Yet while Luxembourg is the first country to introduce such an idea, it’s far from the first area to consider it.

Indeed, free public transportation is becoming something of a trend across Europe, with several cities in Germany and Estonia either offering or seriously mulling over the service.

A 2013 pilot project introduced in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, resulted in a 14% jump in public transit usage—though further analysis showed that many making the leap were previously pedestrians.

But even in Europe, the cut-throat mechanics of capitalism can’t be escaped, with the cost of running such a massive public entity presenting the largest and most obvious obstacle. In 2018 alone, Luxembourg budgeted 900 million Euros for its public rides, and collected just 30 million in return from ticket sales.

To tackle the issue, officials said they would tweak the tax code, which currently benefits commuters based on how far they’ve traveled, but doesn’t take into account the mode of transportation they use. Some additional money will also be saved from streamlining ticket operations.

In a world where all public transit is free, there’s no need for employees to manage ticket operations—or for ticket operations at all, for that matter.

Similar budgetary pitfalls, and a general lack of public embrace, also helped tank the idea when it was introduced several times across America over the years.

Regardless, it seems Luxembourg is determined to begin the program in 2020. And with an increasing call for more shared transportation across the pond, it only begs the question: should the US be next?

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