Mobility and climate protection: if local transport were free?


Status: 09.09.2021 1:14 p.m.

Climate protection starts with small things – for example, leaving the car behind and taking the bus and train. Is the ticket too expensive? Free local transport could be an incentive. Some cities are trying this out.

By Kristin Becker and Marcel Heberlein, ARD capital studio

Mobility and climate protection are the buzzwords of this election campaign. Most parties are in favor of strengthening local public transport. But what if public transport was completely free? Of the parties that are currently represented in the Bundestag, only the left demands that. The SPD and CSU could imagine a 365-euro annual ticket, i.e. a significant reduction in ticket prices, for example in metropolitan areas.

Take Tallinn, for example

The best-known example of free public transport is the Estonian capital Tallinn. Since 2013, residents no longer have to pay for buses and trains. Gunnar Prause is an economist, lived in Tallinn for a long time and also dealt with the change in public transport. In conversation with the Tagesschau future podcast he reports of two main effects: The use of local transport increased by ten percent at the beginning, car registrations in Tallinn have stagnated – unlike in the rest of Estonia. In the meantime, however, that has adjusted again, says Prause.

In Tallinn, it was not mainly about climate protection, but about an election gift from the leading party to its poorer electorate. The city compensated for the twelve million euros that were subsequently missing from ticket revenues with additional income elsewhere: Since only residents can enjoy the free ticket, around 30,000 Estonians who had previously lived in the city, but who had already lived in the city, registered were registered elsewhere. They brought around 30 million euros in additional tax money to Tallinn. The surrounding communities, who lacked this money, were left behind.

Most of the counties in Estonia now offer free use of buses and trains. However, this only works because the Estonian government supports it with grants, according to the economist.

Example Templin

There are also places in Germany that have already tried free local transport – for example Templin in Brandenburg. From 1998 you could travel there by bus for free. The number of uses rose by leaps and bounds – from around 40,000 passengers a year to more than 600,000. The city expanded its network.

But such an operation could not be financed in the long run. Income from advertising and sponsorship was insufficient to cover the additional costs. Those responsible on site reported many “fun and senseless trips”.

As a result, the completely free public transport in Templin was abolished again in 2003. Instead, there is now a very affordable annual ticket – for 44 euros. Since then, the number of passengers in Templin has declined, but before Corona they were still around 250,000 per year, which is significantly higher than before.

Example Pfaffenhofen

While in Templin the main motivation for the introduction of free public transport was to make the city better known and logistically better positioned, the Bavarian Pfaffenhofen is explicitly about climate protection.

The small town in Bavaria is an unlikely place for free local transport. Pfaffenhofen is located between the Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt and the BMW city of Munich. “Statistically, even babies drive cars here,” says Thomas Herker, Pfaffenhofen ‘s mayor. The SPD politician is trying to counteract this with a whole range of measures. “That includes traffic control measures. They are usually less popular. And a free city bus is also part of it, which runs from five in the morning until at eight in the evening, as of now.” The free model was introduced at the end of 2018. In the first year, the number of passengers tripled, from around 1,000 a day to 3,000.

But who switched? “You can’t fool yourself,” says Herker. The newcomers are not only former drivers, but also schoolchildren who previously walked, cyclists and pensioners. “I know people from my own family who would never have thought of using a bus. But when it was free, you tested it and lost your fear of contact.”

The mayor sees shift effects, “but a free city bus alone will not promote the mobility transition”. Pfaffenhofen is still full of cars. The surrounding area is growing faster than the city, which means that new cars are added to the streets every year. Herker is certain: “You can’t always do good deeds. At some point you have to paint parking spaces, switch traffic areas to other uses.”

Because bus traffic no longer generates income, Pfaffenhofen has to save elsewhere. “In the end it is a question of where I set my priorities,” says Herker. There is now no money left for large cultural halls and theaters.

Luxembourg is the first country in the world to try out free public transport. However, there are still no reliable results.

And what if Germany were to introduce free local transport nationwide? Mobility researcher Sophia Becker from the TU Berlin is skeptical. It is true that this will certainly be well received by citizens, she says in an interview with the Tagesschau future podcast. But in the long term Becker fears a loss of quality and range. The local public transport is no longer so easy to finance. The transport companies in Germany currently earn 13 billion euros with tickets. This money would then also have to come from tax revenues.

And if the demand increases, the supply should be expanded. The result: even more costs. In addition: Above all, people who have previously ridden a bike or walked would change, says Becker. “Those who used to drive a car would not get on the bus and the subway in large numbers at once.”

Especially useful in smaller cities

Free public transport makes no sense, especially in larger cities. It could be useful in smaller towns or medium-sized cities. “Especially when the public transport consists mainly of bus traffic, because it is simply not as expensive as an underground train.” What Becker finds helpful is an incentive to switch at the right time. For example: a month of free local transport as a welcome gift for anyone new to a city. “When I move, I have to look for new paths. People are generally open to change.” And from a psychological point of view, it takes three to four weeks to establish new habits.

And what does it take for people in cities to really leave their cars behind? What if a free offer alone is not enough? The research speaks of a combination of “pull and push measures”, says the mobility expert. On the one hand, this means: improve the offer. Let buses run more often and more routes, develop cycle paths.

But measures are also needed to make the car less attractive. For example: make all parking spaces in the city chargeable, as Vienna introduced years ago, or make parking spaces more expensive. The income could then also finance an improvement in local public transport – or a price reduction. In Vienna, for example, there is the famous 365-euro ticket. From the mobility researcher’s point of view, this is a “very good idea”. For the switch away from the car, a better local transport offer is clearly more important than price dumping.

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