Five German cities are likely to join a budding global experiment that poses the question: does free public transport in cities lead to reduced pollution and reduced road congestion, and is it sustainable in the longer term?
Bonn, the former capital of what was once West Germany, along with Essen, Reutlingen, Mannheim and Herrenberg (which is south of one of Germany’s most polluted cities Stuttgart), would be the latest focus of Germany’s efforts to cut its air pollution down to EU standards on nitrogen dioxide and fine particle pollution and avoid fines from the European Court of Justice.
It was one of several possibilities mentioned in a letter to the European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in Brussels, sent by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt and chancellery office chief Peter Altmaier.
Cities in countries across Europe and the world have had mixed results from implementing free public transport to curb congestion, pollution and noise. Arguably the most successful has been Tallinn’s efforts, in place since 2013, with the Estonian capital claiming to have turned a profit overall from knock-on effects of the policy.
But it has not been exempt from criticism and doubts have been expressed about its long-term viability– partly, perhaps, based on the experience of other cities, most famously Hasselt in Belgium, which in 2014 was forced to cancel a free public transport policy after 16 years for financial reasons (though students and senior citizens can still ride for free)
Some cities have triggered free transport as a short-term measure, in reaction to spiking air pollution levels, including three cities in Poland (Krakow, Warsaw and Kielce), and South Korea’s capital city Seoul.
Alongside free public transport, the German ministers proposed the possibility of further restrictions on emissions from vehicle fleets like buses and taxis, low-emissions zones and support for car-sharing schemes.
The European Commission estimates that 400,000 people die in Europe from air pollution and 6.5 million suffer its health effects; altogether, the Commission estimates that air pollution costs Europe 20 billion euros ($24.7 billion) in health spending per year.
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