Free public transit:A radical idea, or a realistic one? This topics pops up every few years to create big discussions in the media. But little ever changes, and it never actually leads to free public transportation. This February, Germany was in the midst of such as discussion. The larger debate centred on bad air quality in many cities; the German government feared a lawsuit by the European Union (which the EU followed through with in May). Around this time, we published an article about free public transportation. The jist of it: It’s a laudable idea, with the state debating the future of public transit, but the implementation turned out to be fairly difficult before it even got off the ground.
The Three Problems of Free Public Transit
Firstly, as a point of interest Germany and Austria have public transit systems that have merged into traffic associations. Essen, for example, is organised in an association with Mühlheim an der Ruhr, Gelsenkirchen works with Bochum, and Berlin is in an association with several different traffic associations from Brandenburg. A single participant in such an organisation cannot simply drop its prices while the other ones have to stick to them. Thus, a collaborative effort is needed.
As always, the second problem is money. Local transport operators are underfunded already. The few vehicles are old and demand in many places exceeds what the systems can actually handle with their current equipment and staff. Without the revenue made by selling tickets, these problems will only get worse. To put it into perspective: The traffic association Hamburger Verkehrsverbund made €830 million Euros due to its ticket sales alone.
Thirdly, commuters remain a problem. Free public transit would be tempting for many people already living in the cities, but not for the commuters who live in the outskirts and surrounding areas. But the free public transit model’s intention is to reduce traffic volume within the cities, which is partly caused by the large numbers of commuters. In the outlying areas the train schedule isn’t dense enough and it can’t compete with the flexibility of a car. Free public transportation within the city is not interesting for them if they have to travel into town daily.
Soft Factors Shouldn’t Be Ignored
All these problems can’t be solved by free public transit. The price isn’t always the most important factor. Soft factors (for example flexibility and comfort) are oftentimes equally important to the price. And these factors won’t improve due to a change in pricing,especially when taking the already existing underfunding of public transit operators into account.
Long story short: The debate about free public transit in Germany was over in record-breaking time.
But other cities developed concepts based on the idea of free public transportation – and turned those into success stories. Since the price is the easiest factor to target, this happened here as well. Especially an idea from Austria seems to be appealing to some German cities.
Vienna as a Role Model
This concept is from Vienna. Public transit might not be for free in Austria’s capital, but another pricing model was created instead. The annual ticket costs €365 Euros, one Euro a day. In this way, people were inspired to buy the cheaper annual tickets – and use busses and trains more often. On the other hand, Vienna could obtain its revenue because of the higher amount of annual tickets sold. Therefore, the city was and is still able to offer an attractive public transportation system to its inhabitants and commuters.
The German cities Bonn and Reutlingen might follow next. There are plans to offer annual tickets at drastically reduced prices: €365, one Euro a day. Bonn and Reutlingen were already selected by the German government as testing grounds for the free public transit experiment earlier this year, even though that was cancelled. So soon it could be more affordable instead of entirely free in this cities.
Investments in Public Transit
Even if cities and municipalities offer their public transit to cheaper conditions to maintain their revenue – there’s no way around a dire need for investments. The two reasons are:
1: Cheap prices will attract the city’s residents and the passenger volume will therefore increase. But as mentioned, especially in the bigger cities like Berlin and Munich, the public transportation system is already running full tilt. The vehicles are oftentimes old and overcrowded, and cancellations occur often. Investments are needed to handle the increased number of passengers and to develop a better train schedule.
- 2: Commuters and the residents of the city’s outskirts won’t benefit from cheaper annual tickets. As a result it’s likely that they won’t buy it. They will continue to commute into the cities to get to work or meet up with friends. Their cars offer a form of flexibility which public transit can’t at its current state. The ways to the next stop or station are long, waiting times are long as well, and they have to switch over to other busses and trains on the way. The price won’t convince people to use public transit – soft factors like flexibility will. Public transit has to be improved in the outskirts and on the countryside, with more lines being built and the development of a denser schedule.
As a result, cheap public transit is a step in the right direction, but not the problem’s solution.