Is free transit a Utopian thought?

Ottawa provides Rack 'n Roll to bring your bikes on the bus in spring, summer and fall.
Ottawa provides Rack 'n Roll to bring your bikes on the bus in spring, summer and fall.
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If plans by prime minister Bettel of the tiny European country of Luxembourg will be implemented, Luxembourg will be the first country in the world to offer completely free public transit. The reasoning is that ticket sales don’t really contribute much to recover the cost anyway:

This year, Luxembourg budgeted nearly €900 million in public money for its mass transit system, but recovered around €30 million in ticket sales, the prime minister’s Democratic Party said in its manifesto. The savings made on selling and controlling tickets could finance some of the cost of free travel, the document added.

New York Times

Out of country commuters

Luxembourg, the country, is roughly the size of the City of Ottawa but with less people. There are 590,000 people living in the country and about 400,000 people commute, 184,000 of those from surrounding countries (Belgium, France, Germany). It is quite a rural country from what I remember.

Free transit might mean more buses on the road
One way to save money is the self powered bus. Passengers appear to enjoy it.

The city of Luxembourg, which I visited once in my life and mostly remember as a very wealthy and expensive place, houses the Secretary General of the EU and is one of the three (!) capitals of the EU, together with Strasbourg and Brussels. In April, June and October, the Council of the European Union holds its sessions in Luxembourg.

2 euros to cross Luxembourg

Luxembourg suffers from traffic jams. Free public transit is thought to be the solution for the wealthy nation’s traffic woes as well as seen as an improvement for the environment. Public transit was already cheap. One could cross the entire country on two euros (around CAD 3). A train trip from Rumelange in the deep south of Luxembourg to Troisverge in the true north takes less than 2 hours and cost 2 Euro for a day ticket (About 3 CAD). But a trip between two stations is also 2 Euros. It keeps pricing easy.

A “short duration 2nd class ticket” is sold for €2. If the passenger buys their ticket on the train, the price is €3. The “short duration 2nd class ticket” is valid for two hours after it is issued, on all services of the public transport network. It is valid in 2nd class. The short duration ticket is also sold in booklets of ten tickets for €16. A booklet of tickets offers a 20% discount on the price of a single ticket.

(Luxembourg train website)

Is free transit a traffic solution?

Dutch experts however think free transit is a bad plan. Professor Bert van Wee from the University in Delft thinks that free transit hardly solves the problem. The space freed up on the road will be filled by others, he suspects. He also thinks that even some of the millions of cyclists in The Netherlands might switch to a bus, which requires more buses on the road.

Cutting congestion and improving the environment are not the main drivers of the free public transport initiative. It is primarily a social measure. The objective is to stop the deepening gap between rich and poor. For people on low wages, transport expenses matter. Therefore it is easier to make it free for everyone.

Luxembourg Minister for mobility and public works François Bausch.
Free transit might mean more buses on the road
Free transit might mean more buses on the road

Free public transit is not free

Offering free public transit would require billions of Dutch tax money. Free public transport is not free, it has to be financed somehow. I think it is not very likely that every driver leaves the car in the driveway and jumps on a bus or train. Car pooling has been tried and it doesn’t make a dent. In Tallin, Estonia, public transit is free since 2013. After a year, usage grew by 14% but it was mostly pedestrians who switched. I noticed a similar phenomenon when I take the bus on Baseline to the Via Rail station on Fallowfield: near Algonquin College, some students hop on the bus for two stops.

Light Rail in Ottawa
Light rail in Ottawa

Ottawa’s transit budget

If I understand the 2018 Ottawa Transit operating budget right, the gross expenditure for the transit services is CAD 580 million. The revenue (paying passengers) is CAD 252 million and another CAD 43 million is ‘Recoveries & Allocations’. In 2016 CAD 20 million came from the gas tax fund. About half of the expenses goes to “salaries, wages and benefits”, the other half to “materials services, transfers and grants”. Interestingly, the average transit trip is about 10 km (2016), the equivalent of about a 30-40 minute bike ride. But an average doesn’t help much for planning. It is all about the 4 hours of rush hours 5 times a week.

Find 252 million dollars

If we were to provide free transit, the CAD 252 million fare revenue (43% of the operational budget) would evaporate and has to come from somewhere else. That is a much larger chunk of the budget than in Luxembourg’s case.

I think it is not likely we will see free transit anytime soon in Ottawa, if ever. If you follow the principle that in theory everyone profits from public transit (because it is free for everyone or because it frees up space on the roads for others or because it is cleaner for our air) the city could consider charge the 420,000 households in Ottawa the extra 252 million dollars or CAD 600 a household annually (or less than 2 dollars -“the price of a coffee”- a day if you want to sound like a sales person). However, free transit will likely require more transit on our roads and rails, so cost will go up further.

Will I take transit more often if it is free?

I live fairly central (that is Baseline-Merivale) and can cover mostly everything by bike, from a visit to IKEA to City Hall to the grocery store to Costco to several libraries all within a 10 km radius. A 10 km radius hardly warrants taking a bus for me. I might use transit more in winter if it would be free, but it requires a lot more than just ‘free’. It requires planning, convenience, reliability, comfort and safe access to stations too.

woman cycling next to street car in Toronto
Woman cycling next to a streetcar in Toronto

I have to walk ten minutes (on the road, there are hardly any sidewalks in my neighbourhood) to the most convenient bus stop plus I need to keep a few minutes as a margin. That time gets me half way my 10 km trip already. If the weather is really crummy, which it rarely is, I can often rearrange my schedule. Despite transport being free, I wouldn’t use it much. However, I don’t use the car much either.

I happily like to save 5000-7000 CAD annually by not owning a car. A rough back on the envelope calculation shows me that our car is sitting in our driveway 98% of the time and it is rarely used in rush hour (when I don’t add the work kilometers of my wife’s). My wife has to use the car for work to visit rural areas. Having the car sitting in the driveway anyway makes it easier to hang on to it. Would we sell the car if transit is free? Likely not. I just don’t feel like taking 90 minutes to get to Gatineau Park or trying to get to the east end on a Sunday evening in winter. I am open to a mix of cycling, walking, free transit and car share (if it comes to our hood) though.

Inside the box?

wooden shoe bicycle
If everything else fails, you can always take the wooden shoe to work.

How do you think we could finance free public transit in Ottawa? Am I thinking too much inside the box? Would rush hour be alleviated with free public transit?

It will be very interesting to follow Luxembourg’s data on commuting by free transit. I bet the potential space will be freed up by others who now believe the roads are emptier, thus filling the roads up again. On a side note, Luxembourg is also planning to be the first European country to legalise weed so we do have something in common.

With files from:
NOS(Dutch public broadcaster)
New York Times: Statistics Luxembourg:
City of Ottawa:
OC Transpo:
Luxemburg train map: 


  1. Yes Hans, time to think outside the bus box. The city should actively discourage bus usage for short trips. They should advertise this. I think it’s silly ( unless you are unable to walk of course) to take a bus from the Glebe to sparks street – 2 kilometres. This is the busing mentality built by 20 years of busing to school, that most students must endure.

    It is interesting that seniors appreciate and do take advantage of the free Wednesday busing.

    LRT should be free for the first few weekends, to get people out for a spin…

  2. Very interesting discussion. This is a great post. Even just raising the idea opens up space to question our current transportation model.

    You mentioned the savings from selling and controlling tickets in Luxemburg but you didn’t factor in for the Ottawa case. Is there a way to find a estimate?

    • The only way to figure that out is to ask OC Transpo and I doubt if they would have a ready answer for you. If Luxembourg has a 900 mln euro transit budget (1.4 million CAD) and they expect to recoup ‘some of the money’ it is probably a few million dollars in their case and less than a few million dollars in Ottawa’s case as our budget is about a third. That is the easy shortcut answer I guess.

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