BERLIN – Since June, the Germans have been the subject of a small revolution in public transport. The Social Democrat-led government, fearing an energy and cost-of-living crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, introduced a national ticket costing just €9 a month, offering unlimited travel on most public transport except intercity express trains.
On September 1, the program will end. Christian Lindner, the finance minister, of the fiscally hawkish Liberal Democrat party, opposed the extension of the scheme, calling it too costly in the long run. As such, many in the country are now asking what lessons can be learned from the three-month experience of nearly cost-free travel in the EU’s biggest country.
The €9 note was decided and implemented quickly and efficiently, a rarity in a country with such a procedural bureaucracy as Germany’s. It was extremely popular: around 38 million tickets were sold in the last three months, which equates to around half of the German population.
“The €9 ticket definitely gives women a chance to feel safer when they don’t have to think about the cost of the train home late at night,” a friend told me.
Yet the speed of the decision meant that public transport operators had almost no notice to plan additional capacity on the underfunded transport network. Companies including state-owned Deutsche Bahn and local operators such as Berlin’s BVG and Nuremberg’s VAG received around €2.5 billion in compensation from the government. This compensated for the loss of ticket revenue, but did nothing to cover the cost of additional staff needed or the operation of additional services.
As a result, some regional lines, usually serving a succession of sleepy towns, were often filled with passengers using them for weekend journeys with their subsidized tickets. “The trains were already in trouble,” said Heath Brodie, a Berliner who works in the mobility industry. “We didn’t expect them to ever have this kind of high sustained usage.”
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Initial media coverage focused on the fact that the €9 ticket offered the ability to travel across the country (provided passengers were prepared to endure slow regional trains and frequent changes). Early talk of the project was dominated by hysteria that young troublemakers could disrupt holidaymakers on Sylt, a posh North Sea island loved by Germany’s big and good. This obscured the main usefulness of the ticket, as a cheap way to get around local areas without worrying about fare zones, ideally instead of driving.
The extent to which the €9 ticket has changed transport habits will only be known after the publication in November of a comprehensive study of its effects by the German Ministry of Digital and Transport. Yet the available data seems to suggest that it did not change travel habits much or lead to a significant reduction in car use. This, however, led to a marked increase in train travel, suggesting that the ticket was often used for leisure trips that people would not otherwise have taken.
A Potsdam University study linked the €9 note to a reduction in pollution of around 6% in cities – a barely shattering reduction. However, another by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research credits government subsidies, primarily the €9 ticket, with keeping inflation up to two percentage points lower than it otherwise would have been.
The €9 ticket offered nearly free travel, but many I spoke to also liked the simplicity and ease of use it offered. While travelers to Germany generally have to familiarize themselves with a confusing patchwork of different ticketing systems and fare zones that some have brazenly likened to the Holy Roman Empire, the €9 ticket was valid for all local travel anywhere in the country. .
Polls suggest that two-thirds of Germans would like the program to continue in some form, even if it would cause other problems.
The main disadvantage of offering train travel almost entirely subsidized by the government is that Deutsche Bahn and other transport operators would become very heavily dependent on the government for funding their day-to-day operations and longer-term investments. For example, ticket sales accounted for around 58% of Berlin’s public transport operator’s revenue in 2019. If most of the revenue from ticket sales disappeared, transport companies would likely demand that the government make up most of the money. shortfall, opening up the risk of lower spending for already underfunded railways. Funding would become even more of a political issue than it already is, constantly in danger of being cut in favor of more pressing priorities.
Germany was not the first European country to experiment with free public transport. Tallinn, the Estonian capital, has had free public transport since 2013, as has the tiny nation of Luxembourg. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, expressed her support for the elimination of tariffs on the network of her city. Austria offers a “climate ticket” allowing unlimited travel across the country for around €1,100 per year.
Some countries have introduced temporary subsidies in anticipation of power shortages this winter. Spain, for example, will make regional travel free from September for at least three months. Ironically, the German program will expire the same month, just as the government encourages its citizens to use less energy during the winter.
Debate over how the legacy of the €9 note might be built abounds. Some federal states have offered their own versions, such as a €365 per year ticket proposed by conservative Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, or the €9 ticket proposed by Berlin’s Social Democratic Party, which would be valid in tariff zones power stations of the capital until the end of the year. A transport industry group proposed a monthly ticket for €69.
For me, extending the ticket to €9 for another three months seems like a no-brainer. Advocating fiscal prudence sounds particularly dishonest given the a myriad of subsidies that Germany offers to drivers. With energy prices soaring and the cost of living crisis worsening, any measure that saves consumers money and a little fuel seems worth taking. continued, at least until we have a better understanding of the seriousness of the crises this winter.
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