German politicians have come up with a proposal to reduce road traffic by making public transport free, in efforts to meet strict EU air pollution targets and avoid big fines.
“We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars,” three ministers including the environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, wrote to the EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella, according to the AFP.
"Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany."
“Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany,” the ministers added.
The proposal is due to be tested by the end of this year at the latest in five cities across Germany, including former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim.
Other steps proposed on Tuesday include further restrictions on emissions from vehicles like buses and taxis, low-emissions zones or support for car-sharing schemes.
As Germany and eight other EU members including Spain, France and Italy have missed the 30-January deadline to meet EU limits on nitrogen dioxide and fine particles, it will be necessary to take action soon.
Karmenu Vella gave these countries more time to present additional pollution-fighting measures or face legal action.
Pollution has a high toll
Pollution which can be life-threatening affects more than 130 cities in Europe, according to the EU commission. This causes about 400,000 deaths and costing €20 billion euros in health spending per year in the EU.
Countries failing to keep up with EU limits may face legal action at the European court of justice, which has the power to punish member states with fines.
Air quality has been at the top of the German government’s priorities in the past year even without EU’s pressure.
Car-makers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler or Volkswagen agreed to pay about €250 million into a billion-euro fund so that local transport could be upgraded.
The auto firms have also intensified plans to start producing more electric cars, with battery-powered or hybrid models planned in the next decade.
In Germany, public transport is very popular and the number of journeys has increased regularly in the past 20 years, reaching 10.3 billion in 2017. Tickets can be cheaper compared to other major European cities.
A single ticket in Berlin costs €2.90, while it costs the equivalent €5.50 on the London Underground.
But leaders of German cities have warned that more planning is necessary for free travel to succeed.
Clear plans on finance needed
“I don’t know any manufacturer who would be able to deliver the number of electric buses we would need to meet increased demand if transport was free,” Bonn mayor Ashok Sridharan told news agency DPA.
Helmut Dedy, the head of Association of German Cities, said they expected a clear statement from the federal government about how free transport will be financed.
So far, other trials in the world to offer citizens free travel have failed, for example in the city of Seattle in the US.
“Ministers should think again during a ride on the U6 underground line in Berlin at 7.30 am,” Die Welt newspaper said.
“The conclusion would be clear: more carriages, more personnel, and maybe even more tracks and lines would be needed. Where would the billions for that come from?”