At the beginning of this month, Luxembourg celebrated its one-year anniversary of nationwide fare-free public transportation. In honor of this milestone, the Ministry of Mobility and Public Works (MMTP) launched the media campaign #WeKeepOnRolling (a tagline that feels somewhat less ironic than a reprise of #FreeMobility after the events of the past year).
Undoubtedly the political actors and administrations responsible for this transition – not to mention my researcher colleagues who have been studying it – had hoped to have by this point a collection of data demonstrating positive impacts of this policy in terms of ridership and public perceptions. Unfortunately, however, the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the works. While there has been some recent data suggesting that ridership is again increasing and, in the case of the tram, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels, measuring or touting the “success” of this year of free transportation in quantitative terms is nearly impossible.
It is no surprise then, that the official anniversary video released by the MMTP eschews statistics. Instead, it seems designed to both represent and evoke a qualitative feeling – what anthropologists often call affect. Danilyn Rutherford, drawing from the work of Brian Massumi, explains that affect can be understood as “a felt bodily intensity, the feeling of having a feeling, a potential that emerges in the gap between movement and rest.” She goes on:
“Affect is measurable in experiments that register unconscious responses to stimuli and potential perceptions that a subject may or may not perceive. As such, affect is something other than emotion, which Massumi understands as collectively recognized ways of describing embodied experience. Affect fuels expressions of emotion, Massumi argues, but these expressions never capture the unruly experience at their root.”
For me, the primary affective resonance of the video, which features footage of maskless musicians and crowds at the “Mobility Concert” on February 29 of last year, lies in the sense of nostalgia that it conjures. On one level this feeling is inextricably linked to my own memories of that event – of live music, conversations with strangers, burgers and beer – all tinged with a sense of excitement about the field research which lay ahead of me. Yet the specificity of those memories blend with a more general nostalgia for a not-so-distant past in which we could freely move and freely gather in large groups, attend concerts and parties, and be in close proximity to others without masks or fear of contagion.
At the same time, however, the repeated imagery of moving vehicles in the video accompanied by upbeat music (and of course the phrase “We Keep On Rolling”) seem to transform this remembered past into a blueprint for an imagined future. One day, it seems to be promising, these cherished features of our personal and social lives will return, and free transit will be ready and waiting to help us get there.
 Rutherford, Danilyn. 2016. “Affect Theory and the Empirical.” Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 285–300, p. 286. If you’re interested in learning more about affect theory and its uses in anthropology, this Annual Review article offers an in-depth exploration.