In a letter addressed to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, seen by the Clean Energy Wire, acting ministers for the environment (BMUB), Social Democrat Barbara Hendricks, for finances (BMF) Peter Altmaier, and for transport (BMVI), Christian Schmidt (both Conservatives) write that “together with the [federal states] and the local level, we are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars.”
The ministers also state that “effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany.”
The EU has put increasing pressure on Germany to reduce pollution levels in cities that exceed the Union’s air quality rules. At a meeting held in Brussels in January, the European Commission granted Germany a last deadline to propose concrete measures on how it intends to comply with the EU’s air quality standards.
Car-proud Germany, home to industry giants BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, is struggling to manage the shift to a more sustainable transport system. Combustion engine driven cars not only cause local air pollution, but the sector is also responsible for around 20 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. [Find background on the diesel technology’s impact on clean air and climate in the CLEW article Why the German diesel summit matters for climate and energy.]
The proposal got a lukewarm reception from transport experts. The Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) said the government had finally realised public transport’s potential for improving air quality and protecting the climate.
“But before we can think about free – i.e. tax-financed – city transport, we need to create the preconditions for an efficient public transport system in Germany. Already today, buses and trains are crammed everywhere. A short-term, rapid rise in passengers would totally overburden the existing systems,” warned VDV President Jürgen Fenske.
Transport association accuses government of "backtracking"
The proposal caught most observers by surprise, because the Social Democrats (SPD) and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives did not mention it in their coalition agreement, published on 7 February.
The letter also promises a new legal framework that would enable the introduction of emission limits for buses and taxis; new traffic regulations to reduce pollution in particularly affected streets; low emission zones for heavy goods vehicles; money to promote electric cars in commercial and public car fleets; as well as the technical retrofitting of cars if effective and “economically feasible”.
Five “lead cities” can test the new measures: Bonn, the former West German capital, as well as Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen, and Mannheim.
The government later clarified that it had no concrete plans to make public transport free of charge in many cities. The proposal is only one suggestion for municipalities to improve air quality when pollution exceeds EU limits, environment spokesperson Gabriel Haufe told journalists at a government press conference.
The lead cities “serve the purpose to try out measures for cleaner air,” Haufe said. “For example, that could be a significant roll-out of electric mobility offerings, or it could be to make public transport temporarily free […] the municipalities can decide for themselves what they do.” It will be the responsibility of the incoming government to find an agreement on how to finance the measures, according to government spokesperson Steffen Seibert.
In a reaction to the clarification, the German transport and environmental association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) said the government's "backtracking" was proof that it was "totally clueless and irresponsible."
“Ambitious solutions for city pollution have been overdue for years, but the grand coalition fails on all accounts,” said VCD public transport expert Philipp Kosok.
Several German cities also face legal action in local courts over bad air quality. On 22 February, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig will decide on the possible ban of diesel cars in city centres.
“Smokescreen to fend off EU lawsuit” or “overdue revolution”?
Clean transport proponents have argued for years that more support for public transport is key to reducing the sector's environmental impact.
“Without any doubt, strengthening urban public transport is the right choice,” said Christian Hochfeld, head of the clean transport think tank Agora Verkehrswende*. “But this can’t be done overnight. The public transport system has been neglected for years. Therefore, it is not ready for a substantial increase in passenger numbers.”
According to the VDV, 10.3 billion public transport journeys were made in Germany in 2017. The association said making public transport free in all German cities would cost an additional twelve billion euros per year.
“Without a corresponding increase in carrying capacities and quality, increasing demand could make public transport even less attractive,” Hochfeld said.
He added the letter appeared to be a hastily prepared attempt to avoid EU penalties at all costs. “The impression is the government is clutching the last straw.”
A spokeswoman from the city of Bonn told Deutsche Welle it did not make sense to use additional diesel buses to reduce pollution levels, and that procurement would be a problem: "We don't know of any manufacturer that would be able to deliver so many electric buses on such short notice."
Winfried Hermann, a member of the Green Party and transport minister of the state of Baden-Württemberg, where three of the “lead cities” are located, also said that Germany was open to novel and unconventional pilot projects, but not to “smokescreens designed to fend off the lawsuit threatened by the European Commission,” according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Some media commentators saw the proposal in a more positive light. Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Michael Bauchmüller called free public transport an “overdue revolution” needed to shift mobility away from individual transport, and thereby reduce air and noise pollution in inner cities.
Making public transport free would cost a lot of money, but “the payoff are cities with a better quality of life, with less noise, and better air quality for all,” wrote Bauchmüller.
Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Verkehrswende is funded by the Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.