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BERLIN — Germans are finishing a three-month experiment in what happens when you cut the cost of public transport to almost nothing.
Since June, some 38 million residents and visitors have bought a state-subsidized €9 ticket valid for one month of travel on all buses, trams, metros and regional trains nationwide. That makes a short inner city bus ride to the supermarket as affordable as a day trip to the mountains from Munich, a ride from Berlin to the sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea or, for good planners, even a cross-country rail trek.
It’s hugely popular, and politicians are keen to claim credit. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this week it was one of his ruling coalition’s “best ideas.”
But the summer of cheap travel is set to end on August 31 and there are no plans to extend the scheme, although there are some proposals for alternative transit programs.
“Nearly free public transport is not something we can afford in the long term,” said Germany’s thrifty liberal Finance Minister Christian Lindner this month, estimating the cost of continuing the €9 ticket at €14 billion a year. “We have to be careful with scarce resources, both in terms of taxpayer money and also the capacity of the railways.”
The €9 ticket was proposed by the Greens and agreed as part of a spring package aimed at cutting fuel consumption, curbing inflation and relieving a cost-of-living crunch while also offering an incentive for motorists to ditch their cars for cleaner shared transit.
It’s hit some of those goals, but it’s also strained the ability of Germany’s delay-prone railways to meet increased demand.
Germany isn’t the first country to experiment with free or nearly free mass transit, but it’s the largest country to run such a trial so far. The €9 ticket includes all forms of transport except long-distance intercity trains, making the program a critical test of the impact of such subsidies.
“It’s a very exciting moment for this type of policy,” said Hilia Boris Iglesia, who works on transport economics at Brussels-based mass transit lobby UITP. “It’s a promotional tool and a way of making public transport accessible to people that didn’t previously use it.”
In Germany, Lindner’s team says it’s too early to categorically say whether the €2.5 billion cost of the three-month scheme was worth it. An extensive study on the impact of the €9 ticket will only be ready at the beginning of November, according to Transport Minister Volker Wissing.
Still, some early signs are encouraging.
Germany’s Federal Statistical Office says one-fifth of Germans used public transport regularly for the first time thanks to the €9 ticket; it also found a 42 percent increase in rail travel through June and July compared with the same period in pre-COVID 2019.
The number crunchers haven’t spotted a fall in car use, but researchers at the University of Potsdam said the ticket had driven a 6 to 7 percent decrease in air pollution levels across Germany, with the effect greatest during the working week and in urban areas.
However, it remains unclear how many ditched their cars for trains, or if existing ticket-holders just took advantage of the pass to travel more frequently.
More importantly, removing the cost of transit from household budgets — a monthly pass covering only the center of Berlin usually costs €86, while in Hamburg it’s €115 — helped trim soaring inflation by up to 2 percentage points, according to a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.
Experimenting with transit
Early media coverage of the €9 ticket centered on packed regional trains bound for tourist hotspots, or punks relocating to the upscale island of Sylt in June.
Since the policy was launched with just a few weeks’ notice, it was impossible for operators to roll out extra capacity on urban transit networks or on popular local train lines. A lack of sustained investment over recent years means additional carriages to handle suddenly ballooning passenger numbers just weren’t there, especially as Germany’s rail system is already facing a punctuality problem.
“[The €9 ticket] has actually moved people toward a different mobility behavior,” said Thorsten Koska from the Wuppertal Institute, but added: “The fly in the ointment is that additional usage is pushing public transportation to load limits.”
Low-cost transit also worsens a capacity crunch by incentivizing walkers to take a ride on public transport over short distances, further packing sweaty carriages and metro cars. Germany’s long-distance bus companies, which weren’t covered by the scheme, are also reporting a steep decline in passenger numbers this summer.
Other countries have their own experiments in free, or heavily subsidized, mass transit — with mixed results.
Tiny — and wealthy — Luxembourg has made public transport free for all since 2020, with car-crazy Malta set to follow from October as part of plans to ease pollution on the island.
Estonia’s capital Tallinn has done the same since 2013. However, the Baltic state’s national audit office said in a report last year that it hadn’t boosted passenger numbers, indicating it wasn’t worth the public spending.
The Belgian city of Hasselt was Europe’s first mover, introducing free public transport in 1997. But it stopped the program in 2013, arguing it didn’t make financial sense.
Offering free rides is easier for some than for others, according to transit economist Boris Iglesia from the UITP. For example, ticket revenue made up just 8 percent of Luxembourg’s public transportation budget before the free transit policy came into effect, compared with between 60 and 85 percent in German cities, she said.
Which price is right?
While Germany’s €9 ticket is set to expire in a few days, it could return in a different format.
The Greens propose cutting tax relief for company cars to fund a two-tier ticket costing €29 for unlimited transit in the pass holder’s local region and €49 for a nationwide option. The country’s 16 regions could themselves agree to fund a low-cost transport program, and the leader of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, Markus Söder, has backed a €1 a day train ticket if purchased as a yearly pass for €365.
The Association of German Transport Companies made its own proposal for a €69 monthly ticket valid across the country, which it estimates would require a €2 billion annual public subsidy.
Across the border in Austria, the Klimaticket, or climate ticket, offers nationwide travel for €1,095 a year, or €91 per month.
Riffing on Germany’s plan, Spain will make regional trains free from September until the end of the year as part of its own efforts to ease household costs, while subsidies are also being used to slash mass transit ticket costs by a third.
But no matter how low the price per ticket, or how high the cost to government budgets, climate goals demand action on cutting transport emissions.
“This is not a question of political desires, but of planetary necessity, given the climate crisis has a completely different dimension than all other crises,” said Koska.
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