This February, the German government declared its intention to make public transportation free for everyone. In an attempt to avoid being sued by the European Union over the high levels of air pollution in many German cities, five cities (Bonn, Essen, Mannheim, Reutlingen, and Herringen) were chosen to test the implementation of free public transit.
Yet the project couldn’t even get off the ground. A debate about the project’s funding ensued and none of the mentioned cities wanted to play the guinea pig for this project. The project fell flat in a matter of days and for now, the issue has not been brought up again.
Free Public Transportation: More Appearance Than Reality?
On paper, this concept seems to have lots of benefits. Commuters leave their cars at home and instead use busses and trains, the traffic volume within the cities would be reduced, less traffic jams would occur, and the air quality would improve. So why did the cities reject the plans of the German government so rigorously? The answer: While free public transportation is an intriguing concept, the reality of such a project also comes with a host of problems.
The first one is its funding. Cities generate a huge amount of revenue by selling tickets for public transportation. For instance, Hamburg has earned €830 million through its public transportation ticket sales. If it were for free, a higher passenger volume would be generated, leading to a greater need for trains and busses to grow with the influx of commuters. Additionally, the cities would still have to pay the public transit workers and would need to invest in the maintenance of the existing infrastructure. Without the revenue generated by ticket sales, there would be giant holes in the cities’ budgets, or cities would need to generate the money another way, for example through higher taxes.
The second problem is a structural one, especially in Germany and Austria: Many cities merged their public transportation systems in traffic associations. Essen for example, one of the project’s model cities, is organized in a transport association with Mühlheim an der Ruhr. Individual cities within these associations cannot just offer public transportation for free, while other members of the association have to keep ticket prices up.
And the third problem are the commuters themselves. One of the target groups of free public transportation are the commuters travelling into the cities. They are the people who should leave their cars at home and instead use busses and trains. Many of them don’t come from the cities they work in themselves. They come from towns and villages around the cities. Free public transportation within city boundaries is simply not attractive to them.
It’s Not All About the Price
A spokesperson for the Verkehrsclub Deutschland confirmed in a FAZ article that commuters are more likely to use a well-developed public transport system than simply being convinced by the price.
For people living in the suburbs it is more important to get into the city quickly and at regular intervals than to not have to pay for it. Where is the commuters’ benefit if the train or bus only stops once every hour? The comfort and flexibility of a car might ultimately outweigh the lower cost of a free but inflexible public transport. Thus the price (or lack of it) alone cannot justify people abandoning their reliance on owning their own vehicles.
There is an urgent need for investment. If cities want to implement free public transport they will need to invest more into strengthening their infrastructure due to the increased passenger volume, and to improve the schedules by purchasing additional trains and vehicles.
Some cities have already taken their first steps in this regard. They don’t offer free public transportation, but instead decided to drastically reduce prices for annual tickets. This way they still generate money for investments and keep their transit system attractive, while also offering an incentive to use the public transportation system on a regular basis.
The most prominent example is Vienna. In Austria’s capital, the annual ticket costs only €365. For one Euro a day, people can travel across the entire city. Another example is the German city Templin. The town offered free busses from 1997-2002, with the passenger volume increasing fifteenfold during this period. Then the city started charging again, with an annual ticket now costing €44 – and the passenger volume remaining on the same level.
A Multi-Faceted Solution
Politics ignored urban logistics for a long time. The amount of problems increased as no concrete solutions were proposed. Thus thinking and debating the concept of free public transportation is a step in the right direction. It appears that finally politicians have come to realise the significance of solving these problems. But free public transit isn’t a universal cure. While more pedestrians and cyclists would travel with free busses and trains, the commuters would still use their cars. Well-developed public transit networks are at least as important as cheap ticket prices.
Consequently, free public transportation as a stand-alone concept is not a useful solution to the problems of urban mobility. It can be when integrated in a broader concept: A public transportation system with cheap annual tickets and offers, investments into the improvement of the public transport system, and a dense train and bus schedule with many different lines and departure times.
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