The Value of Free

As Luxembourg has moved ever closer to the moment of transitioning to free public transportation, one of the biggest questions under debate is whether this measure will significantly increase ridership. Through informal conversations with my fellow Luxembourg residents as well as dedicated ethnographic research over the past months, I have heard a range of hopes and doubts about whether this move will really change people’s mobility patterns. This question is of course of vital importance, and the widely voiced skepticism about the impact of fare abolition on public transit ridership is both understandable and warranted. Yet on the eve of this transition, I would like to take some time to set aside these speculations and reflect on what fare-free transit means to different people.

Freedom from emissions and emissions-guilt

When asked about what they see as the value of public transportation broadly (whether free or not), a majority of the people I have interviewed thus far have talked about the environmental benefits of opting for mass transit. While public transit in Luxembourg is not (yet) emissions-free, it is by and large a more sustainable option than driving, and several transit users have described to me the sense of an ethical burden being at least partially relieved by making this personal choice.

Of course, if free public transit is seen primarily through this lens, it is bound to be judged as a success or failure based on whether or not it incites enough people to change their mobility habits and thereby significantly reduces carbon emissions. While many have argued that these goals would be more effectively met by expanding and improving the transit system rather than making it free, I don’t see why it needs to be an “either-or” scenario. As I see it, holding out hope for the possibility of increased public transport use – and, more broadly speaking, actively striving to combat climate change however we can – doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to potential limitations or hurdles but committing to what Kathi Weeks refers to as “thinking within a horizon of utopian potential.”[1]

Free mobility and moving freely

In addition to the potential environmental impact of free public transportation, it is also important that we consider the policy – as the legislators implementing it have argued – as a social measure. Reflecting on this potential social impact, we might first ask: To what extent does free transit expand people’s ability to freely move? Once again, this question has been widely debated in Luxembourg over the past several months. 

On the one hand, removing the transit fare is removing one of the primary factors regulating – in theory if not necessarily always in practice – who can access public transportation. Of course, many Luxembourg residents have been quick to point out that (a) public transportation in Luxembourg was already relatively inexpensive compared to other countries and that (b) a significant number of transit users did not pay for the service already, whether because of the low frequency of fare-enforcement or because they benefited from a free pass because of their age, job, etc. 

While both of these arguments are certainly true, they do not, as I see it, refute the social ideal of ensuring equal access to mobility. While 50 euros per month for an unlimited transit pass is affordable for many Luxembourgish residents, it does represent a valuable monthly savings for those with lower incomes. Moreover, eliminating the fare across the board makes the system more equitable by extending free access to people who were previously falling through the cracks – who don’t qualify for public assistance but also don’t have a job that offers this perk.

On the other hand, the benefits of free public transportation will not be equally accessible to all Luxembourg residents. Other barriers which restrict transit use will of course still exist, including limited access based on where people live and where/when they work. For those living in rural areas where housing is more affordable, for example, or who work night shifts, making transit free does not necessarily make it a more convenient or viable option. While the transition to free public transportation does not create these inequalities in access to mobility, it makes them a lot more visible.

While these social dynamics of free public transportation have been widely debated in the Luxembourg media and public over the past year, there is another social justice element that I have not yet heard discussed here, though it is at the forefront of many grassroots struggles for free public transportation in the United States. Put simply, the elimination of the fare also eliminates the risk of penalization for not paying a fare. Rosalie Ray explains that in several cities in the US, fines and arrests for fare enforcement have been shown to disproportionately affect low-income users and people of color,[2] leading activists to call for fare-free transit as an instrument for “countering racist and predatory policing.”[3] While I am not suggesting that Luxembourgish fare-enforcement personnel had previously targeted racial minorities or low-income riders to fine, I argue that the removal of a fare alleviates the burden of risking punishment for not paying, a risk which was likely more acute for those with limited financial resources.

Free transit as free PR

Despite these decidedly mixed social and environmental potentialities, free public transportation has been a resounding success for Luxembourg’s nation branding campaign. As one woman I interviewed put it, the measure brings Luxembourg a great deal of “free PR” via its wide circulation in the international press and social media. Just this week, Luxembourg’s nation-branding campaign, famous for the slogan “Let’s make it happen,” released a promotional video about the transition to free transit, now proclaiming “We made it happen!” 

While this jargon may on the surface appear collective or inclusive (the “Let’s” and “We” seemingly encompassing all Luxembourg residents with open arms), it has an alienating effect on many people who live here. Indeed, the country’s broader nation branding campaign has been contested over the past years (a subject for another blog) for putting the country’s external image and politicians’ agendas above the needs of its inhabitants. In this context, free public transportation feels like more of the same – a move designed to attract tourists, investors, and workers for the nation’s financial sector. From this perspective, the potential social and environmental benefits of the measure feel at worst like a smokescreen, and at best like possible secondary side effects.

Fare-free versus value-free

Finally, many of the fears people articulate about free public transportation invoke the idea of diminishing value. “That which costs nothing is also worth nothing,”[4] is the oft-repeated refrain. To me these concerns seem to highlight the ways in which the equation of cost and value have been so deeply ingrained in many people’s way of seeing the world. On the one hand, many transit users express concerns that the overall quality of the service may decline or that other users may respect the service, vehicles, or spaces less if it is free. On the other hand, transit workers’ unions and others have expressed concerns about the social devaluation of jobs in this industry, fearful that a similar lack of respect will also affect public perceptions of transit personnel and the labor that they perform.

These concerns about transit jobs must be taken seriously and addressed with actions – including policies – that affirm the value of this work. Yet at the same time, following in the footsteps of other anthropologists, I would like to suggest stepping away from seeing value in economic terms (the idea that fare-free = value-free), and instead consider value as something profoundly social. David Graeber, in developing his “anthropological theory of value,” proposes considering value as the product of human action as integrated into a larger social entity. As he sees it, the potentiality to create value through action “cannot realize itself…except in coordination with others.”[5] If we look at free public transportation in this way, we might consider that everyone who invests time and energy in the transit system – including the transit personnel who work every day to make the system function as well as the users who choose public transportation – are actively contributing to making it valuable, regardless of the price.

_ _ _ _ _

Do you have thoughts about the transition to fare-free public transportation that you would like to share? Let me know! My next blog, in mid-March, will look at what happens during the first weeks of free transit, so if you would like to share your experiences as this change is unfolding, please don’t hesitate to send me a message


[1]In the book cited here, Weeks is drawing from a Marxist feminist tradition to envision “postwork imaginaries,” but I also find it to be a useful way of thinking about the struggle against climate change. Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. p 29. 

[2] The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, for example, “found that of the 30,000 fines and 8,000 arrests for fare evasion in 2016, more than 50% were of Black riders, even though Blacks are only 19% of the Los Angeles population. Rosalie Ray, “The US: Seeking Transit Justice from Seattle to NYC.” Prince, Jason, and Judith Dellheim, eds. Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators. Montreal, Chicago, London: Black Rose Books, 2018.p. 144

[3] Ibid, 144.

[4] “Wat näischt kascht, dat ass och näischt.”

[5] Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave, 2001. p. 260.

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