Transit Transitions: Past, Present, Future

Many of the public transportation changes that my research explores are unfolding in real-time, making this an exciting moment to trace mobilities through the ever-shifting reality that is “the present.” Yet their story also stretches far into the past, with mobility practices and technologies changing rapidly along with society. To understand the present moment in Luxembourg’s history, we must look to the moments that came before, which made the country’s public transportation system what it is today and continue to inform the ways in which people think and feel about mobilities. 

But this is also a story about the future – or rather futures – imagined by the diverse actors who are involved. Individually and/or collectively, transit workers, state agents, citizens and residents of Luxembourg each hold imaginaries of how the country’s mobility future will or should look. These imaginaries may in turn be linked to broader ideas about the future of work, or the nation, or society itself. Considering the present moment as inseparable from both the past and future, I focus on the continuity of rather than the separation between these realities. The “present” of yesterday was, after all, as tinged by imaginaries of tomorrow as the present of today. Thus, history and future continue to mutually construct each other, perceivable in the fleeting instantaneity of the now.

Though human beings have been moving around and across the territory now known as Luxembourg for many centuries, my exploration of these mobilities begins in 1859, with the arrival of the first railroad. The system was gradually expanded, connecting Luxembourg with cities in neighboring countries. Soon after, the country witnessed the creation of a number of local train lines, each baptized with its own anthropomorphic name. Many of these trains – though long discontinued – hold a special place in the nation’s transit lore. The legacy of Charly, for example, (of the eponymous Charlys Gare), is well-known to Luxembourg residents born long after its final ride in 1954. 

Around the time that the railway was being expanded throughout the country, horse-drawn trams began to circulate around Luxembourg City in 1875, each pulled by two animals who bore the task of navigating the capital’s steep slopes and sharp turns. In 1908, the horse-drawn trams were replaced by new electric versions. On their last day of operation, the city hosted a party for residents to say farewell to the vehicles and animals. The subsequent expansion of the electric tram to various neighborhoods of the city was greeted with great excitement, and community celebrations often accompanied the inauguration of new lines. This expansion of the tram network was in turn expanding the city itself, connecting disparate zones of habitation and integrating them into a larger urban area. 

In the decades following World War II (during which Luxembourg’s transit system was taken over by the German occupiers), the growing popularity of automobiles and frequent traffic jams on the city streets instigated the political decision to eliminate the tram system. The first buses in Luxembourg had begun to circulate in 1926 and since they used wheels rather than rails, they were more flexible in where they could go. The process of dismantling the tram system in Luxembourg City took twelve years, and the last day of the last tram was marked by a large celebration, with community members gathering again to say goodbye to both the vehicles and the personnel whom they had come to know over the years.

The second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the new millennium have been punctuated by many more changes to Luxembourg’s public transportation system, including the implementation of services for children and people with reduced mobility, the introduction of hybrid and electric buses, the construction of two elevators and a funicular connecting the high and low parts of the city, and the debut of driverless shuttles. Yet perhaps the biggest, splashiest change of the past 50 years (preceding the announcement of free public transportation) came in 2017, when trams returned to the streets of Luxembourg City after over half a century’s absence. Now, as the tram continues to expand its route toward the central train station, it is transforming large swathes of the city into construction sites. 

Indeed, anyone who has experienced the everyday challenges of moving about Luxembourg City in recent months cannot help but notice that the country’s capital is undergoing a series of major infrastructural changes. Huge stretches of main roads are dug up, leaving sewage lines exposed and mounds of earth beside sidewalks, while brightly colored barriers direct pedestrians in maze-like fashion around worksites where neon-clad workers drill, shovel, and operate heavy machinery. With all these combined factors, one is left with the distinct impression that the city is a work in progress, a future in the process of becoming. While the everyday inconveniences caused by these works are a source of frustration for many residents, these unmissable signs of change also elicit feelings of excitement and hopefulness about the future. 

At the same time, a fleet of electric buses circulating in the capital city proclaim in bold lettering along their sides “THE FUTURE IS NOW.” In this case, the future being heralded is an ecological vision of reduced carbon emissions. While many voices argue that Luxembourg should focus on improving the system rather than making it free, many climate activists demand that both moves are critical to promoting more sustainable mobilities. 

Alongside the potential environmental benefits, however, many people express concerns about potential negative side-effects of current transit transitions, several of which are linked to broader concerns about the future of work. Questions about the future of jobs in the transit sector – such as those raised recently in response to the replacement of some rural ticket offices by automated machines – invoke a bigger question that is by no means specific to transportation: what kind of work will be left for humans in the future? With technological innovations continuously reframing ideas of “human” tasks, societies must take a hard look at what kinds of labor we won’t accept outsourcing to machines.

In trying to make sense of these diverse dimensions and perceptions of current transit transitions, I look to Arjun Appadurai’s efforts to develop an “anthropology of the future,” which explores themes of imagination, anticipation, and aspiration.[1] According to Appadurai, “the future is not just a technical or neutral space, but is shot through with affect and with sensation” – both positive and negative.[2] On the one hand, an “ethics of possibility,” refers to “ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that increase the horizons of hope” while on the other hand an “ethics of probability” is associated with calculation or fear of potential risks and disasters.[3]Both of these ethics are undoubtedly at play in debates about (free) public transportation. Yet we must also remember that the future is itself a moving target. Just as the future is in our minds pushed ever forward, colonized over and over by the constantly shifting present, our imaginaries of the future – what is expected, dreaded, desired, or fought for – is also continuously changing. 

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Thank you very much to Romain Rech at the Tramsmusée (the Luxembourg City Tram and Bus Museum) for taking the time to talk to me about the history of public transportation in Luxembourg and give me a guided tour of the museum. All that I know and share above about the nation’s transit history I learned from that visit (though any factual errors are my own). Whether you are a transit aficionado or novice, I highly recommend a visit to the museum, a highlight of which is the chance to take a ride on one of the city’s original electric trams, beautifully preserved since the 1960s.

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Do you have memories of Luxembourg’s transit past or thoughts about its mobile future that you would like to share with me? If so, please feel free to send me a message. My next blog, at the end of February, will explore what it means to go fare-free, on the eve of the country’s transition. If you have thoughts, hopes, or concerns about this change that you would like to share, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

[1] Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. p.286.

[2] Ibid, 286.

[3] Ibid, 295.

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