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Is free public transport a fundamental right?

In 2020, Luxembourg became the first country to scrap public transport fees. Its residents now believe that free public transport is a fundamental right. Could the scheme work in other countries?

Free public transport is a rarity around the world.

So rather than pay a daily fee to get from point A to point B and back again, many citizens would rather invest in owning personal vehicles.

But in the face of a climate crisis – and with cars accounting for 26 million tons of greenhouse emissions annually – the usage of cars needs to drop significantly if we are to reach green targets set for the end of the decade.

Dealing with this might just require radical change. For example, Luxembourg was once the country with the highest car density in the EU. For every 1,000 people, there were 696 vehicles. Elsewhere, the average number was 560.

In order to deal with its growing traffic problem and reduce its national emissions, the government decided to take a huge leap of faith. In 2020, it became the first country to scrap nationwide fares of all public transport.

Now, residents say that they view free public transport as a ‘fundamental right’. It has allowed them to travel more easily around Luxembourg while massively benefiting the environment.

Could this work in other countries?

In Luxembourg, transport ticket sales previously raked in €41 million annually. This only covered a small portion of the €500 million needed to continue running the country’s public transport system.

Officials say that the remainder of the cost was covered by payments from taxpayers in the highest bracket.

For the last three years, all forms of public transport including buses, trams, and trains have been free for both residents and tourists. Only those wishing to travel in first class seats need to pay a fee.

Despite making travel completely free, there have been no changes to the fluency or frequency of Luxembourg’s transport system. In fact, the switch has achieved record investments into improvements to its national rail services.

According to local authorities, trams operate more easily without the hindrance of traffic.

It begs the question – can other countries achieve the same?

Well, I know for a fact that Londoners would be delighted at the prospect of free travel – even if it had limited conditions.

Considering that the expansion of the city’s ULEZ has placed a burden on those using personal vehicles to get around, a switch to free public transport at certain times or central areas would be a greater incentive for people to hop on the Underground before taking a seat at the wheel.

But since TfL is in debt – subsidized by the government and relying heavily on its income from those who use it – it doesn’t look like this could be a possibility any time soon without rising local taxes. Which I’m sure nobody wants.

However, smaller changes like free travel applied to short-haul rides or travel within certain Zones at certain times would likely be make a huge impact on the habits of residents.

In regard to national rail, many believe that the system is already ‘far too overstretched’ for free transport to be feasible. Free transport is far more likely to show up in smaller EU countries looking to reach their green targets sooner.

But maybe one day, with successful examples like Luxembourg to draw inspiration from, Britain might see a better-connected and more travel-accessible future.