When the German parliament approved a new measure this month slashing public transit fares nationwide for three months this summer, the move reflected the severity of the nation's energy crisis. To reduce its heavy reliance on Russian gas and oil after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany is desperate to find ways to reduce its fuel consumption and push more drivers to take trains and buses.
But while the German government's decision to cut public transit costs was sparked by an immediate crisis, promoters of the summer transit windfall hope that the initiative can do more than just temporarily soften the blow of spiraling energy costs to consumers. It could offer a glimpse of what a lower-emission future might look like for Germans, who are being encouraged to permanently adjust their mobility consumption to less carbon-intensive modes.
"Inexpensive and climate-friendly mobility must not and will not remain a flash in the pan," said Katharina Dröge, parliamentary co-chair for Germany's Greens — currently a minority partner in the coalition government — in a statement.
The new public transit deal, dubbed "crazy, but inspired" by German dailyDer Tagesspiegel, is certainly one of the most affordable Europe has ever seen. For the three months of summer starting June 1, a month's travel ticket will cost just 9 euros ($9.56) a month for all subways, buses, trams and regional trains. This will slash the cost of public transit to almost token levels. A commuter using all of Berlin's transit zones, for example, will save 98 euros a month for their travel pass, while a commuter in Greater Hamburg will save a little over 105 euros. The ticket will also be available for people in smaller cities, and for traveling across the country. While faster intercity train services will not be included in the tariff, 9-euro ticketholders will still be able to travel the length of the country using regional services, and tickets bought in one region will be valid nationally.
During a year where an already pandemic-beleaguered country is struggling to manage the fallout of the war in Ukraine, ultra-cheap transit is just one measure Germany has introduced (or plans to introduce) as part of a relief package to provide a buffer against the war's effects. In September, working adults will have a one-off 300-euro payment added to their wages to help counterbalance the cost of rising energy bills, with the self-employed paying reduced tax instead. Parents with small children will receive 100 euros per child, a figure doubled for parents receiving public assistance.
As in the US, the German government is under pressure to provide relief for motorists: Fuel taxes will fall by 0.30 euros per liter for gasoline by 0.14 euros for diesel, while car commuters traveling over 21 kilometers daily will see their existing tax credits slightly increased. This comes despite some resistance from Germany's Greens, minority partners in the country's ruling coalition, who wanted to provide further subsidies for heating bills instead.
Despite its scale, the recovery package is arguably more Band-Aid than windfall in a country where drastic inflation is disproportionately affecting poorer, less car-dependent households. The 9-euro ticket has also not been without its critics. Some fear that the cheap tickets will overload trains and strain the network. Last month, trade union representatives expressed concerns that overcrowded trains would have to be cleared by police and stations forced to close, while high demand would require national carrier Deutsche Bahn to employ temporary staff and pay extra to existing workers over the summer vacation season.
In a populist spin on these worries, tabloid newspaper Bild reported earlier this month that residents of Sylt, an exclusive North Sea resort island, were panicked at the prospect of hordes of less-monied tourists descending upon the (somewhat bleak) beach community — a claim that has since spawned a rash of memes.
Some wondered why the plan hasn't gone further, following the example of Luxembourg by making public transit free nationwide. Reducing rather than abolishing fares, after all, doesn't necessarily make operational costs on public transit cheaper. It also perpetuates a system where fare-dodgers end up in the criminal justice system: As of 2019, a third of inmates in Berlin's Plötzensee juvenile prison were there for fare evasion, a situation that likely costs the state more than simply letting people ride free.
Other questions revolve around the plan's environmental effectiveness. A total swing among commuters towards public transport could save as much as 21.3 million tons of carbon emissions annually, according to Germany's Federal Environment Agency. But there's no telling how many Germans will forgo car trips during the cheap-ticketing period.
Some economists have expressed concerns that, as the war in Ukraine may drag on, this summer's price drops may have to be followed by crippling rises in a few months. "Energy prices will be permanently higher than in recent years," transport economist Christian Böttger told conservative daily Münchner Merkur. "There are only three options for cushioning the cost increases for buses and trains. First, the state could provide additional money, which in view of the budgetary situation and rising interest rates, seems increasingly unlikely. Secondly, the railways could reduce services. Or, thirdly, prices will increase. I'm afraid that the third option is the most likely."
So far, ticket sales have been strong, and Deutsche Bahn has already scheduled extra services to manage the spike. If Germany does indeed get to enjoy a summer of cheap, easy travel, then the 9-euro ticket could provide a window into a less dire low-carbon future — and prove an instructive experiment for other countries looking to decarbonize. Often, the world's pressing need to reduce energy consumption is talked of in terms of sacrifice, at least for citizens of wealthier countries. Should it succeed, the 9-euro ticket could also demonstrate that a greener future could also offer pleasures as well as belt-tightening.
Feargus O'Sullivan is a writer for CityLab in London, focused on European infrastructure, design and urban governance.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.