Five German cities plan to emulate an Austrian scheme to radically cut the cost of public transport in a bid to combat pollution. The German government will subsidize the project with €128 million ($148 million) to help cover the income shortfall from cheaper tickets.
It’s an attempt by Berlin to assuage the European Union Commission, which has taken Germany and five other EU states to court for failing to respect EU limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. The city of Stuttgart, for instance, has recorded levels of 82 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter of air — that's more than double the allowed limit of 40 micrograms.
The five cities chosen for the clean air scheme are Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Mannheim and Reutlingen, all in the former west. The scheme is a lesser implementation of the pledge the German government made in February to test free public transport in five cities. But riding buses, subways and trams will become significantly cheaper under the plan, which has been seen by Handelsblatt and which the government is set to discuss with the cities’ mayors on Friday.
Bonn and Reutlingen want to follow Vienna’s example of introducing an annual ticket costing €365 — just €1 per day — for using all public transport. The exact offers vary from city to city, but all will offer significant price cuts and a variety of sweeteners such as reduced rates for car-sharing services and one free taxi ride per month.
The measures are meant to persuade people to ditch their cars. Cities across Germany are under pressure to avoid the driving bans for diesel cars that were imposed this year by Hamburg and are planned in Stuttgart and other metropolitan areas.
In Vienna, which introduced its cheaper ticket in 2012, the number of people using public transport doubled. But the city then had to make more buses and subway trains available, raising overall transport expenses. The transport authority recently increased prices for individual rides and weekly tickets but kept the prestigious annual subscription price steady.
Now 38 percent of the population of Vienna uses public transport; in Berlin it's just 27 percent. However, air pollution in Vienna still exceeds EU limits.
The five German cities chosen for the experiment will inevitably face higher transport costs as well to invest in more buses and trains to accommodate the anticipated rise in demand. Uncomfortably crowded buses won't tempt commuters to abandon their cars.
The EU Commission has yet to approve the German government’s planned subsidy. Some €123 million of the €128 million total has been earmarked for making tickets cheaper and expanding services. The remaining €5.6 million is destined for other measures including speed limits on heavily used thoroughfares in Herrenberg, near Stuttgart, to improve the air quality. Mannheim wants to ban delivery vehicles from entering the city and force them to unload in so-called “micro hubs.” And Reutlingen and Essen plan to use some government money to build more bike paths.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics from Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]