A world first: Luxembourg's public transport to be free for all
Luxembourg will offer the world's first fare-free public transit system, but is there really such a thing as a free ride?
- To combat congestion, Luxembourg aims to become the first country to implement fare-free public transit services.
- Other European nations are considering similar courses, but across the pond the United States continues to fumble its public transportation to deleterious effects.
- Luxembourg's goal is noble, but it will have to overcome historic trends showing such fare-free systems rarely work in the long run.
In our popular consciousness, public transportation dredges up images of graffiti, sullen-eyed workers, and urban riffraff. See, for example, every movie to ever feature a scene on a bus. Meanwhile, private transportation enjoys glowing fulsome marketing and even vehicle names—think Fiesta, Sonata, Forester, and Mustang—elicit feelings of wealth, class, and freedom.
This tendency leaves our popular consciousness blind to the many benefits of public transit. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), public transportation yields $4 of economic return for every dollar invested. It increases business sales by helping workers get to work and customers get to stores. And it can help curb greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States alone, public transportation saves 4.2 billion gallons of gas annually.
Such benefits flow to individual households, too. For every dollar earned, notes the APTA, the average American household spends 18 cents on transportation, most of which goes to operating and maintaining a vehicle. Using public transit and having one fewer car, families could save as much as $10,000 a year.
Looking to augment these benefits, Luxembourg has decided to be the first country to lift all fares on trains, trams, and buses.
Come on and take a free ride
(Photo from Pixabay)
A Luxembourg train passes over a bridge.
Luxembourg will offer free fares on public transportation next summer. The change will be implemented as part of Prime Minister Xavier Bettel's progressive and environmentally friendly platform, which he and his Democratic party ran on in the previous election.
In addition to limiting greenhouse gases, the fare-free policy also hopes to ease the country's incredibly high congestion rate. Luxembourg sports 647 cars for every 1,000 people, and residents currently spend an average of 32.21 hours a year in traffic jams—great for getting through your audiobook collection but not much else.
Nor is such a move completely out of the blue. As Guardian contributor Daniel Boffey points out, Luxembourg's public transit is already heavily subsidized and the fare-free system is just another step in its increasingly "progressive attitude to transport." This summer, the government offered free rides to people under 20, as well as free shuttles for secondary school students. On average, commuters pay €2 for up to two hours of travel. In a country half the size of Delaware, that goes a long way.
Luxembourg also hopes that running costs will be reduced by removing the need to collect and process fares. But there are some issues remaining, such as figuring out how to prevent free-riding sleepers and urging those with means to reduce their car usage (i.e., the tragedy of the commons).
Some got a ticket to ride (and some don't care)
(Photo from Ticki Park)
Swiss public transit is heavily subsidized and offers amenities such as this in-coach playground.
Other countries plan to follow in Luxembourg's fare-free footsteps. Estonia hopes to make bus travel free for citizens across the country, after a pilot program in the capital city of Tallinn proved popular. In Tallinn, residents have to register as a citizen and pay €2 for a "green card" to ride gratis. Thanks to the required registration, the city plans to make up costs with increased collection of taxes.
"A good this is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes," Allan Alaküla, head of the Tallinn European Union office, told Pop Up City. "But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore, they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city."
Paris, France, is also looking to providing free public transport to reduce pollution, and the Swiss public transit system, while not free, is heavily subsidized and offers amenities such as family coaches with playgrounds.
Across the pond, the United States' public transit system is moving in the opposite direction. John Rennie Short, professor at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, identifies four reasons for the decline in the quality and breadth of U.S. public transportation: our early adoption of the private vehicle, the abandonment of mass transit systems in the '40s and '50s, constrained governmental funding, and the tension "between private affluence and public squalor."
"Building something new gives politicians a photo opportunity, replacing frayed electrical cable does not," Short writes. "And there are many other claims on government such as pensions, schools, Social Security and a large military. Our infrastructure chasm is a quiet, slow-moving but relentless crisis only brought into focus when wires fray to the point of immediate danger."
Political bifurcation has also stymied public transit system in the U.S. With the car the symbol of individualism, public transport has become associated with welfare and socialism, and politicians have voted accordingly. The U.S.'s top transit systems are located in the Democrat-leaning West and Northeast, while the Republican South has the worst. The Midwest is mixed.
Easy rider come (easy rider go)
(Photo from Good Free Photos)
Tired people travel by the Belo Horizonte Metro in Brazil.
But just because Luxembourg offers free public transportation doesn't mean it will be successful. Although Tallinn's free-fare system is popular among voters, outcomes have been mixed. One study found that the capital's fare-free system increased usage by 14 percent and improved low-income mobility; however, it also found that the program had little effect on ridership.
Similarly, the Swiss public system may be subsidized and resplendent, but private vehicle use still outpaces public transport by many billion kilometers.
Luxembourg also has to contend with a history of failed fare-free systems. Rome attempted such a system in the 1970s to ease congestion, but it proved a costly experiment. The city had to reinstate fares after only six months. In the U.S. Denver, Trenton, and Austin also had unsuccessful bids at fare-free systems. A report based on these experiments from the National Center for Transportation Research concluded that such fare-free services aren't appropriate for large transit systems.
Writing for the Atlantic, Joe Pinsker argues that it makes more sense to implement free transit as a specialized tool, not on a grand scale. He cites the failed attempts mentioned above, but also Singapore's successful program to comp commuter tickets for travel during non-peak hours.
"Perhaps the cost of public transportation shouldn't be looked at from an angle of reducing traffic and emissions," Pinsker writes. "Maybe free public transit should be thought of not as a behavioral instrument, but as a right; poorer citizens have just as much of a privilege to get around conveniently as wealthier ones. If the debate shifted from means-to-an-end thinking to pure egalitarianism, the hope of public transit might actually be realized."
We'll have to wait to see if Luxembourg bucks the trend Pinsker laid out. One thing is certain, though: The strains modern society puts on traditional infrastructure are enormous, and we'll need a variety of new and reconsidered transportation approaches to ease it.
- Luxembourg to become first country to make all public transport free ... ›
- Why Can't Public Transit Be Free? - The Atlantic ›
- Why Don't We Have Free Public Transit? - Motherboard ›
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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