The German Government is considering making public transport free in order to cut emissions and help Germany meet its EU air quality targets. While the idea of free public transport seems appealing, the plan has received some criticism.
The concept of free public transport was set out in a letter from German Federal Ministers Barbara Hendricks (SPD, Environment), Christian Schmidt (CSU, acting Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure) and Chancellery Chief Peter Altmaier Peter Altmaier (CDU) to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, which outlined the actions that Germany was considering to reduce air pollutant emissions. Germany is one of nine Member States currently under pressure from the European Commission for breaching EU rules on air quality. Last January, Commissioner Vella criticised these Member States for not doing enough to tackle deadly levels of air pollution. Alongside Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic could face legal action for violating EU law by exceeding air pollution levels. Their proposals to date "were not substantial enough to change the big picture”, Commissioner Vella said.
According to the letter from the German ministers, quoted in German media in February, trials with free public transport are part of a new package of measures proposed by the German Government to improve air quality. Other measures proposed include the introduction of low emission zones, extra incentives for electric cars and the retrofitting of existing vehicles, where this was considere to be effective and economically feasible. The measures would be tested in Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen and Mannheim before the end of the year, before the most successful measures were rolled out in other cities.
However, the federal government’s announcement that their cities had been chosen as test areas for free local public transport came as a surprise to the authorities concerned. The plan has also raised eyebrows, in particular over its costs. The Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) was also surprised by the proposal of the Federal Ministers. VDV President Jürgen Fenske commented “if one wants to introduce free local transport in Germany, then this must not be a fluke of the day, and all levels of government [..], must finance public transport permanently and sustainably. For this alone, it needs about twelve billion euros per year. And this does not take into account the billions in infrastructure investment.”
“It is not realistic to offer free local public transport at short notice,” said Bonn’s Lord Mayor Ashok Sridharan to news agency DPA after a first meeting of the five test cities in Bonn on 26 February 2018. “None of the cities proposed completely free local public transport,” reported Sridharan after the talks referring to the necessary investments and funding shortfalls. Instead the cities are looking at alternative measures and will prepare proposals to cut air pollution in March 2018. It is likely that these will focus on reducing the use of diesel vehicles and increasing the use of electric buses in public transport.
In the meantime, a European Commission spokesperson confirmed that the Commission is evaluating the proposals made by the German ministers and will return to the matter in mid-March. If the proposals are insufficient, it is quite possible that Germany would face legal action and heavy fines for its failure to address air quality.
For more information, see the Statement by Commissioner Karmenu Vella following Air Quality Ministerial meeting at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-18-508_en.htm
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