- Five cities in western Germany, including former capital Bonn and the industrial cities of Essen and Mannheim, are set to trial free public transportation to help the country meet European Union (EU) air pollution targets, according to The Guardian. Three ministers reportedly announced the plan in a letter to the EU’s environment commissioner Karmenu Vella that was then obtained by various news outlets.
- Under the proposal, the German government would help subsidize public transport companies, which The Washington Post notes generate upwards of 50% of their income through ticket sales. Ultimately, public transport could be fully funded by taxpayers, in addition to other schemes such as emissions restrictions and further support for car-sharing.
- The action comes after Germany and eight other EU members missed a Jan. 30 deadline to meet environmental limits on nitrogen dioxide and fine particles. A pilot program should begin by the end of the year.
The idea of free public transportation sounds like an attractive one, even in a country like Germany where alternative modes are popular and cheaper than their equivalents in the United Kingdom and the United States. In Berlin, a single ticket on public transportation costs about $3.50, while a similar one-way trip costs $6.80 in London.
The approach to combat air pollution through free transit is not unique to Germany. CityLab reports Seoul waived public transportation fees earlier this year to try and curb air pollution, while Paris and Milan have offered similar schemes. Free trips should certainly give people more options and encourage them to leave their cars at home, although there is a possibility more users could overwhelm systems that may struggle to cope at peak times.
Financially, the German government needs to work out the funding mechanism for the project, as local and federal taxes already have many pressures put on them. The Guardian reports environmental advocacy group Greenpeace is calling for the car companies to subsidize free public transportation, although they are already paying into a fund to upgrade local systems.
And it could be more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly to convert existing public transportation to electric, a process well underway across the world. Twelve cities signed a pledge last year to promote clean transit, which arguably means more up-front investment as buses, trains and other modes are converted to run on electricity but then means less pollution in the long-term.