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)

Tired people travel \u200bby the Belo Horizonte Metro in Brazil.

(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.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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