How free public transport could ease the climate and congestion

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 commute 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: its new mobility strategy, Modu 2.0 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.