Future of Travel

These European Countries Are Offering Free Public Transport to Help Combat Air Pollution

The policies are aimed at local commuters, but in many places, tourists can take advantage of them, too.
Bridge pont adolphe in Luxembourg in fall. Bus people and cars crossing in evening light.
Dennis Fischer/Getty

For visitors to some European destinations, getting around town just got cheaper—and cleaner.

Last month, Malta became the second country in the world to make public transportation free. Luxembourg was the first nation to scrap fares in 2020, with dozens more European cities having independently joined ranks. Spain, too, recently launched free train travel on select routes through year’s end, while a small region in Italy has announced it will refund travelers’ train fares there until May.

One of the driving factors in this rush toward free public transit? Sustainability.

Proponents of these momentous policy shifts say waiving fares helps incentivize people toward mass transit and keeps cars off the road, lowering vehicle emissions and improving local air quality in the process. That’s no small thing: Within the European Union, transport contributes to a quarter of total annual emissions—with 60 percent of that stemming from car use.

A United Nations report released last month cites that air pollution remains the greatest risk to public health in Europe, with surges related to summer’s punishing heat wave on the continent.

“The findings of this assessment … must be a wake-up call for the region,” Olga Algayerova, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, said in a statement accompanying the report.

There were more than 300,000 premature deaths attributed to air pollution in the E.U. in 2019 alone, part of 4.2 million such fatalities around the world each year.

Beyond improvements to air pollution and traffic congestion, advocates say the free-fare movement helps to position transportation as a public good, ensuring more equitable access to low-income riders.

“By improving the availability, frequency, and affordability of public transport, you have a huge benefit to people who are marginalized and vulnerable within the local community and within the economy more broadly,” says Andrew Simms, coordinator at the nonprofit Rapid Transition Alliance, a network of international organizations aimed at tackling climate change solutions. “There is a positive domino effect of social and economic and environmental benefits when you reduce the congestion related to excessive private car use.”

Other touted benefits of the measure include the potential for financial relief to European residents facing inflation as well as rising energy costs stemming from the war in Ukraine. The free-fare scheme also aims to lure back a segment of commuters who shifted to private vehicle use during the course of the pandemic.

Critics, however, are doubtful that the measures work as claimed, citing mixed data on the actual related reduction of car journeys; some research has indicated that the policy has bolstered ridership not from drivers, but from would-be pedestrians and cyclists. And for some, cost reduction alone simply isn’t enough to compete with the perceived convenience of door-to-door trips by private car, especially if local public transit is viewed as unreliable, unsafe, or uncomfortable.

“What we have learned is that people don’t consider fare policy as the reason they don’t or won’t take public transport,” says Mohamed Mezghani, the secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, which has put out a policy brief on free-fare public transport. “They consider the service, the safety, timekeeping, and cleanliness to be among the most important reasons to attract them—not ticket price.”

Christophe Reuter, spokesperson for the Ministry of Mobility and Public Works in Luxembourg—a small nation (pop. 639,000) that’s now nearly three years into its free-fare policy—conveys similar sentiments. “In short, when it comes to [transport] mode shift, quality is key,” he says. “If a bad restaurant made its meals free, it would not attract customers from other restaurants, but only people who could not afford going to any restaurant at all.”

There is also the critical question around financing. Mezghani explains that while fares may be ‘free’ for the user, “They must be paid in some way—whether that is through taxation, by the operator or network, by the city—the service must be funded.”

Experts say that, ultimately, more must be done to effectively convert car drivers to public transit, like pairing free fares with additional regulations that makes urban driving more costly or challenging, via policies like congestion pricing or increased costs and restrictions around parking.

“I think no single measure is going to be enough,” says Simms. “What we hear from the climate scientists is that we're going to need to see rapid and unprecedented changes in all sectors and areas of our lives and the economy. But this [fare-free transit] is one enabling measure.”

For now, Luxembourg and Malta (pop. 517,000) are providing smaller-scale prototypes for what such policy enactment might look like in larger destinations.

Bigger European countries and cities have begun experimenting with similarly inspired measures. Germany offered nearly-free countrywide travel passes (at 9 euros per month) over the summer, as it faces lawsuits stemming from its high levels of air pollution. Austria launched an ongoing 3-euro-a-day pass for national transport last year, while public officials in Paris have expressed ambitions of making citywide public transport free by 2026.

For travelers to Europe, the list of free-fare destinations today is quite long, including highlights like Geneva; Akureyri, Iceland; Livigno, Italy; and Dunkirk, France. There’s a catch, however: Not all destinations extend free fares to tourists. In places like Malta or the Estonian capital of Tallin, for instance, complimentary rides are available exclusively to residents.

And it’s not just European destinations that are among the more than 100 cities around the world now offering some form of free public transportation, with such initiatives popping up in select locales in the U.S., Australia, and beyond.

“The momentum is building behind it,” says Simms, who cites that it's partly out of necessity, as many nations strive to meet their climate targets. As part of the E.U.’s Green Deal, for instance, the region is aiming for a 90 percent decrease in transport-derived greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“One of the simplest and one of the biggest wins that you can make is getting people out of energy-intensive, polluting, space-taking private cars, and onto clean, reliable, affordable public transport,” says Simms.