German Cities to Offer Free Transit to Cut Air Pollution

A streetcar in Berlin

Other cities might consider it to reduce congestion too.

The air quality in German is not up to European Union standards, so the German government is considering free public transit as a way of getting people out of their cars. Germans drive a lot of diesels, so it would reduce particulate and Nitrogen dioxide emissions. They are also considering "low emission zones" that would boost incentives for electric cars.

According to Die Welt, the program would take place in a number of smaller cities: "Bonn, Essen, Reutlingen, Mannheim and the town of Herrenberg which is south of Stuttgart — one of Germany's most heavily polluted cities."

But it is not so easy to do, and may not solve the problem.

One of the biggest issues is that cities would need to beef up their public transportation fleets with more buses and streetcars — and eco-friendly ones at that — to accommodate the anticipated rise in passengers. "It doesn't make sense to use more diesel buses of course," the city of Bonn spokeswoman told DW, adding: "We don't know of any manufacturer that would be able to deliver so many electric buses on such short notice."


View of Essen from the top of the Zollverein Coal Mine complex/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And of course, generating the electricity for electric cars and buses in Germany is not exactly clean and wonderful; 40 percent of its electricity still comes from burning dirty lignite coal. According to Bloomberg,

This dependence on coal is partly a side effect of Germany's abandonment of emissions-free nuclear power and partly foot-dragging on the part of a government wary of alienating voters in German coal country. During the summer election campaign, Merkel largely avoided the subject.

But at least down on the ground in Essen and Bonn, the air will be a bit cleaner.

They probably proposed this in smaller centres because bigger ones couldn't cope; the transit systems are already overcrowded. Where I live in Toronto, a new subway line just opened a month ago and it can't handle the crowds at York University. Imagine the crowds if it was free.

But on the other hand, free transit makes a lot of sense. It would encourage a lot of people to get out of their cars, reduce congestion and pollution, and the subsidy per passenger would probably be less than the direct and indirect subsidies that drivers get. Cities should plan for it.