COVID-19, fare-free public transport: accelerators (or not) for sustainable mobility?

written by:

Veronique Van Acker and Merlin Gillard

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on mobility. From one day to the next employees started teleworking en masse, some of us avoided places like public transport because of a fear of contracting the virus, and many started walking in weekends because other leisure activities were cancelled. But did these experiences make us think differently now about mobility ? To which extent will we continue to telework ? Are we still afraid to take public transport or share a ride with others ? A panel survey organized by the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) together with the University of Luxembourg offers more insights into the long-term effects of COVID-19 on sustainable mobility.

It seems like some time ago, but in May-June 2020 – just when the first lockdown was being eased – LISER organized a first survey about the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 in Luxembourg. While this survey covered multiple topics, more than 1,100 Luxembourg residents and cross-border workers answered questions about their participation in daily out-of-home activities and mobility, digital activities and teleworking in particular before the pandemic and during the first lockdown in spring 2020. One year later, in March-May 2021, LISER organized a second survey with the same respondents and also new ones. A comparison of the two waves of data collection provides insights into effects of COVID-19 on sustainable mobility.

Sustainable mobility requires actions around three elements. First, think about whether you need to make a trip. For example, try teleworking instead of going to the office. Second, think about which mode of transport is best suited. Perhaps public transport is also an option instead of using your car. And third, once these choices are made, try to minimize the impact of your trip. Sometimes travel by car is unavoidable, but you can still opt for a shared car, share your ride with others or choose a less polluting car. LISER’s survey offers insights into all of these three elements of sustainable mobility1.

First, presumably one of the most important things the lockdown has taught us is that the need to travel is not always necessary. This was most obvious for traveling to go to work. Before the pandemic started, the majority of the employed respondents (84%) commuted to their workplace 4 or more times a week. This number dropped significantly to only 16% in April 2020 during the lockdown. Many of these employed respondents switched to telework. Before the pandemic, 7 out of 10 employed respondents never worked from home against a minority (7.6%) who teleworked almost full-time (i.e., 4 or more times a week). This completely inverted during the 2020 spring lockdown: 6 out of 10 employed respondents teleworked 4 or more times a week compared to only a quarter (24.1%) who still did not work from home in April 2020.

One of the most important things the lockdown has taught us is that the need to travel is not always necessary.

For some employees, especially essential workers, teleworking was indeed not an option. But it also shows that far many more employees can in fact work from home. Continuing this new teleworking practice – at least to some extent – could thus have an enormous impact on achieving sustainable mobility. Full-time working-from-home like in the 2020 spring lockdown is probably too extreme and it could have some serious psychological consequences.

Figure 1: Changes in teleworking from February to April 2020.
Figure 1: Changes in teleworking from February to April 2020. Taken from the SEI Report, p. 37.

Almost one-third (32.6%) of those who teleworked in April 2020 indicated they started missing their commute to work. After all, the trip to work offers to many commuters some time to ‘relax’ or at least a break between work and home. A hybrid workweek combining teleworking with commuting is therefore highly recommended. Based on results of LISER’s second survey in 2021, it looks like several employed respondents are indeed applying such a hybrid workweek. Only half of the employed respondents (51.8%) commuted to work 4 or more times a week in March-May 2021. So, this number is not yet at the same high level as before the pandemic. At the same time, more than 1 out of 3 (34.6%) is still working from home almost full-time. This number is in-between the situation before and during the lockdown in spring 2020.

A second pillar of sustainable mobility is to choose alternatives to the car. One of the big questions is the impact of COVID-19 on public transport. In the 2020 survey, 5 out of 10 respondents (51.9%) agreed that they used public transport less often than before to avoid crowded buses, trams and/or trains. This number has decreased, but only to 4 out of 10 respondents (41.9%) in the 2021 survey. It thus seems that COVID-19 has created a certain fear of using public transport, especially among frequent public transport users. This number is remarkably higher among employees who commuted to work by public transport before the pandemic compared to non-public transport users (77.1% versus 39.5%). This explains to some extent why some employees shifted from public transport to cars when they had to commute to work during the 2020 spring lockdown.

While most former public transport users (74.8%) were teleworking in April 2020, only a minority (6.6%) remained using public transport and almost 2 out of 10 shifted towards cars (19.2%) during the 2020 spring lockdown. Fortunately, initial results of the 2021 survey are more positive indicating a slow return to public transport.

Finally, in some situations and for some people, cars remain the only option. But even then, more sustainable choices are possible. Instead of using one’s own car every time, one can think more often about sharing a car or a car ride with others. However, in the 2020 survey, almost 6 out of 10 respondents (59.1%) agreed that they were afraid to get infected by others and therefore did not share any rides or vehicles with others. This number has decreased considerably to 3 out of 10 respondents (33.2%) in the 2021 survey. The recovery after COVID-19 for car-sharing thus seems somewhat more positive compared to that for public transport.

In some situations and for some people, cars remain the only option. But even then, more sustainable choices are possible.

COVID-19 thus offers opportunities for sustainable mobility – especially in terms of replacing the need for travel by digital activities such as teleworking – but also serious threats, and this notably for public transport and shared mobility.

What about FFPT ?

Just before the pandemic broke out in Western Europe, a few weeks before the first lockdown, Fare-Free Public Transport was introduced in Luxembourg, not without great publicity.

Official video for promoting the abolition of fares in Luxembourg (Ministère de la Mobilité et des Travaux Publics).

Because of the temporal proximity of the two events, it is almost impossible to evaluate the effect of free transport on the number of passengers – at least not until the pandemic is over. However, we conducted another survey in February 20202, online, which was addressed both to Luxembourg residents and cross-border commuters, aiming to learn about their travel behaviour, their travel satisfaction and their intentions to use public transport in the future.

In particular, we asked how often the respondents use public transport, why, and if they intended to continue using it in the future. We found that there are relatively strong bus use habits amongst our respondents (45% of them us the bus daily), while this varies for the train: only 17% of the residents use it on a daily basis, but 54% of the cross-border commuters use it on a daily basis. The reasons that are most often pointed out for using PT a lot are the fact of non-car ownership (20% of the residents that use PT on a daily basis) and the difficulty of access to parking (unavailability or too expensive for 19% of the cross-border commuters that use PT on a daily basis).

A majority of the respondents (65% of the bus users and 51% of the train users) aimed to use PT similarly as they currently did. Only about 10% of the respondents aimed to use PT more than they currently did, and for half of that group, this would be due to fare-free public transport. Looking at the other answers of that subset declaring that they will use PT more, we found that they also express an overall liking of busses, and that they did not use PT very frequently at the time of the survey, meaning that there was a growth potential. Inversely, if some respondents declared not wanting to use PT more, it might have been because they already use it as much as they can. For them, fare-free public transport might just be a bonus, an additional incentive to use PT, or a welcome reduction in expenses.

About 10% of the respondents aim to use PT more often. For half of that group, this would be due to fare-free public transport.

Figure 3: Top-3 reasons to increase bus use in the near future.
Figure 3: Top-3 reasons to increase bus use in the near future.

Nevertheless, price did not come up as a matter of dissatisfaction related to PT, unlike operational aspects such as frequency of service, reliability of the service or punctuality. In order to foster modal shift towards public transport, it is actually in improving these characteristics that investments should be prioritized, some researchers3 argue – and this is in progress in Luxembourg, after having abolished fares.


1. A full report on this research can be found here. Back to text.

2. See here. The survey was open from 11/02 to 29/02/2020 and the total sample constituted of 1946 answers from residents over 16 years old and cross-border commuters. Back to text.

3. See for example: Héran Frédéric, « Gratuité des transports publics et cohérence des politiques de déplacements urbains », Transports urbains, 2020/1 (N° 136), p. 28-34. Available here. Back to text.

Veronique Van Acker conducted and analyzed the two surveys and wrote the first part of the text, on covid-19. Merlin Gillard wrote the second part of the text, on FFPT.

Another version of this article was first published in ‘Lëtzebuerger Gemengen’ (27/09/2021, pp. 20-21).

To learn more about impacts of the covid pandemic on public transport users, you can also read this study.