Aalmost two years of declining public transport use and increased car traffic due to Covid Globally, what can governments do to deter people from driving? In Germany, the response to the effects of the pandemic and the cost of living and climate crises has been bold and decisive. The federal government has introduced a €9 (£7.60) monthly public transport subscription, available to everyone and across the network for the months of June, July and August.
As soon as the offer was announced, our social media feeds were buzzing with people sharing news of seizing the opportunity to enjoy cheap and unlimited travel on all buses, trams, metros and regional trains across Germany. And after just a month, the success of the program seems to be encouraging other countries to follow suit.
Preliminary analysis has revealed that while previously longer train journeys (more than 300 km or 186 miles) accounted for the majority of journeys on the German rail network, the reverse was true in June 2022. During the first week alone, train journeys of between 100km and 300km increased to 46% above pre-Covid levels – and, most impressively, 58% for short distance journeys of 30km to 100km . At the same time, a TomTom analysis revealed a decrease in car congestion, resulting in improved driving times in 23 of the 26 German cities examined.
What are the implications of these behavioral changes, and what are the lessons for other countries or regions considering similar programs?
First, making public transport cheaper should aim to significantly improve access to economic opportunities – including jobs and education – for those residents who need them most. For many, the choice to use public transport depends on the availability of affordable and reliable options. If it is deemed too expensive – especially for low-income people – or inconvenient in terms of station location, route or frequency, the average citizen will opt for the seemingly most expensive option. affordable and most reliable: the car.
What makes the €9 flat rate ticket so attractive is of course the price; even 20 days of use per month equates to a modest 45 cents per day. However, while a reduced fare is important, it is worth nothing without public transport networks, for example local buses, regional trams and intercity trains, to support it, complementing each other to provide (almost) door-to-door connectivity. .
This integrated and fine layout has been the secret to the success of public transport in the Netherlands, where we and our children live comfortably without a car.
We frequently take buses, streetcars and trains to virtually every corner of the country, and giving up the car we relied on before leaving Canada did nothing to limit our ability to travel longer distances for the school, work, social visits, sports activities and even camping holidays.
Every day, millions of Dutch people combine walking or cycling with some form of motorized public transport to access their daily needs. Despite this, however, long-distance car journeys are increasing, in part because many find the cost of public transport to be a barrier to using it. A 25-minute one-way train ride from Amsterdam to Utrecht, for example, starts at almost €9. For this reason, to really keep passengers coming back, governments need to take a combined approach of providing affordable fares and a fast, frequent network. Public transport can be made even more attractive when the question of the “first mile, last mile” is actively considered and taken into account: comfortable conditions for users on foot or by bicycle to and from their stop or station.
Beyond the positive impacts on congestion and climate, a less discussed outcome of fewer cars on our streets is the positive effect on our personal and collective well-being. By researching our book on the subject of car use, we discovered myriad sociological benefits for people in places where cars no longer dominate. Children gain greater independence as road safety hazards are reduced. Public spaces with less car traffic are quieter, reducing ambient stress and allowing greater social contact between residents and visitors. Moving around a city at a slower pace facilitates face-to-face contact, something we’ve all experienced during lockdown, and which directly contributes to the release of oxytocin, making us healthier and feeling happier. .
While these quality of life benefits were not the intended results of the €9 ticket in Germany, they should certainly be considered for other countries currently experimenting with temporary fare reductions, such as Ireland, where most fares have been reduced by 20% until the end of 2022, and Luxembourg, where public transport is now free. Spain is halving many fares on buses, trams and trains from September, and will make some suburban routes free for multi-trip tickets until the end of this year.
At the same time, it is essential to remember that reduced fares are not the golden ticket to reducing congestion and increasing ridership. The success of any incentive is accessibility, and that only comes with an investment: a strong network of public transport options that reaches as many residents as possible, complemented by walking and safe bikes. This is what makes the sustainable choice the easy choice. Ensuring that those with the least financial means are offered a pathway through a reduced fare system can provide a fair lifeline that could simply be a game-changer for their economic situation.
When this three-month experiment ends at the end of the summer, Germany’s €9 banknote legacy will hinge on any lasting behavioral changes. Time will tell if the loss of the attractive and affordable option causes people to revert to old car-based habits or if the experience of a different way of getting around inspires them to make more permanent changes all throughout the fall and winter months. Ideally, the experience of a less stressful and more pleasant mode of transport will be a catalyst not only for public transport users, but also for decision-makers to accelerate the transition towards a more climate-friendly future.