“Luxembourg can be a laboratory for sustainability measures” – Interview with François Bausch (Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Mobility and Minister of Defense of Luxembourg)

In March 2020, Luxembourg became the first country worldwide to provide free public transport. Such revolutionary measure, which is at the same time a part of a mobility plan that started almost ten years ago, brings up a multitude of questions that ECEPAA sought to find an answer to. Why this measure? How can a policy like this affect national and foreign workers? Is it the most environmentally sustainable policy available? To try to find an answer to these questions, ECEPAA met with François Bausch, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense and Minister for Mobility of Luxembourg since 2018. He is a member of the Greens in the Chamber of Representatives.

In 2013, as Minister for Sustainable Development and Infrastructures, Bausch began a project meant to change the way mobility is conceived in the small western European country. Among others, Bausch’s aim was to improve the way mobility is conceived in the country by facilitating the movement of pedestrians and improving the public transport, while reducing the need for private vehicles.

ECEPAA met with François Bausch, Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Mobility and Minister of Mobility

Q: Which are the factors that have caused this revolution in the public transport sector in Luxembourg?

FB: I come from the transportation sector. During my professional career I have worked at the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (Luxembourg National Railway Company). The transportation sector has always fascinated me. Now, with the climate crisis and the new vision of urban spaces (which is increasingly being discussed worldwide), it was clear for me that changing mobility is not only about placing trams, but also about changing the urban space of cities, of large conglomerations.

Mobility is not about planning for the movement of vehicles but planning for the movement of people. In this sense you plan mobility, and you suit it with the urban changes of cities. You have to take into account all the possibilities and to consider possible combinations

Q: What has allowed Luxembourg to go even further and provide free public transport?

FB: For me it is important to have a multimodal vision plan with an investment plan to increase the quality and focusing investment on infrastructures. That is the cake. And the icing on the cake is giving it for free. Providing free public transport has allowed us to raise awareness, to invite them to try. Thanks to public transportation being public, there is a lot of people that has discovered what we are doing.

Trams are being a success. Numbers are increasing, we break records every month. We are right now at 42.000 users per day. The first record, before the first lockdown, was over 30.000. Then it plummeted obviously with the lockdown. We startled and we are not at 42.000. We estimated that, once the pandemic is over and the offices reopen, etcetera, we will quickly get over 80.000 people per day in the tram alone. The interaction with the tram, trains and bus is working very well. People have accepted and understood it.

Bus, trams and trains are now free in Luxembourg. Photo: EPA

Q: Has the pandemic prevented the study of the effects of the decision to provide free public transport?

FB: Yes and no. Yes, because we launched it with a party and the pandemic has slowed us down. But not “prevented” because the most important is to draw attention and we have succeeded to do so. To defend this strategy, I have been in lots of meetings, in overcrowded rooms… The gratuity has added to the debate. “What does this mean?”, “why is he doing it?”, “this does not make any sense”, etc. I have pulled ahead anyways. Since it is free, it is simple, you do not need a ticket.

There are lots of people that take the public transport, and they realize that “it’s not that bad, it works” and some that criticize. It is good that they tell me so. People are an important element of this debate, of all communication surrounding it.

It goes even beyond the country because, last year, despite the lockdown and the pandemic I have given about fifty conferences to people around the world, interviews in foreign newspapers, even in Japan. Everybody was wondering what was up with Luxembourg’s decision to provide free public transport, “why are they doing it?”. I have been able to explain the whole strategy, and that is what matters.

In the end, the gratuity for me is like a communication lever to explain that it all belongs to a strategy to change, fundamentally, the mobility system. I always say, in the 21st century we do not solve the problems in mobility by implementing separate projects (introducing a tram, a car lane, expanding a route…). We need to understand that we need to change the system. The system is causing the problems through inefficiency, ill-conceived projects… Or the preponderance of the car, which is completely overrated. It is not a strategy against the car, the car itself is integrated into the strategy. The car has its place there, combined with other means of transport. We must plan mobility for people’s mobility, not vehicles.

Q: That shows why you have preferred this measure to others like increasing fuel prices.

FB: Yes. I always say, you always need to have the carrot and the stick. The most important is the carrot because if you do not have the carrot you are going to have “gilet jaunes” like in France. It does not make any sense. What we have done this year is to implement a CO2 Tax because you also need a strategy to develop alternatives. You cannot tell people, “leave you car at home”. Then how are they going to do to commute? I do not know. 30 or 40 kilometers by foot maybe? It does not work. We are creating alternatives; we already have alternatives! Combine your car with public transport. We are building, for example, some big “Park and Ride”. When the “Park and Ride” will be finished, it will be almost pointless to enter the capital with a car.

Q: Do you think that with a more conservative government these measures will be kept?

FB: When I started in 2013 with this strategy, all political commentators said, “with this strategy, after 2018, he is not going to survive in politics”. I won the election in 2018, from 10,1% to 15,6%, we won 50% of votes. This was a great opportunity because this means that I will be in the government for ten successive years to make this project happen.

Now, my goal is, obviously, to work on the continuation of this project, which goes until 2035. The goal is that, at the end of this legislature, no prime minister, regardless of their ideology, can get rid of it. We are on the good track because people are starting to see that it is working. It is not perfect, there is still many things to do, but people know that it is being worked on. If someone wants to back off, this person will have lots of problems.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world. Photo: Sabino Parente

Q: With free public transportation, has transportation become a right in Luxembourg?

FB: Yes. Especially urban transport, local transport. I always say that Luxembourg, as a country, is a big agglomeration. We have 620.000 inhabitants, and we must add the border workers. During the day, the country has an agglomeration of almost one million inhabitants. We must see public transportation, local transport, and mobility in general, in a different way. For me it is a right, it must be a right. We have a public service that I going to help society. I think it is like the access to drinking water, the access to housing… Housing by the way is becoming a very important subject. According to the data provided by the United Nations, about 80% of the world population will live in urban areas. Access to housing is therefore a very important thing. Mobility is important because it must be a universal right to have access to mobility and it is also very important for society to function.

Q: Internal mobility, within a country?

FB: Yes, but mobility in general. It is important to connect urban spaces and to allow rural zones to join urban spaces, that is also important.

Q: Do you think that this measure could be soon applied in other European countries?

FB: I think it can be applied everywhere. Especially in big urban areas. Paris is discussing about it, Brussels as well… Other cities worldwide have shown great interest for our work. We can be a model.

It is not free. There is not such thing as “free”. The access is free. This is paid by general taxes. Now I am thinking of a way to finance public transportation through specific general taxation. Right now, it is financed by the taxes that every person pays. From a social point of view is much more equitable because the more taxes you pay, the more you finance. But, in the end, I think that it is necessary to finance the mobility system in the same manner we are financing the road network. The road network is paid at almost 100% by specific general taxation. It is important to generalize this principle. With a free access.

Q: One of the main reasons of the measure is “to promote sustainability within the country”. Does the measure also intend to, in a global scale, promote Luxembourg as a sustainable and socially conscious country worldwide?

FB: Of course. I think that it is important for Luxembourg to develop sustainably and to be seen as a sustainable place. I see the country as a laboratory for ideas of sustainability. We are an autonomous country, but we are small, so we can implement these measures very quickly. I think that Luxembourg can be an example and be the laboratory for sustainability measures.

Note: Minor edits where done on March 31st 2021.