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18 August 2022

Germany’s almost-free rail travel experiment hasn’t displaced cars

The German government is at loggerheads over whether to extend this summer’s €9 unlimited monthly public transport ticket past the summer. So far, the data suggests it is not delivering for the climate, and is making rail travel more difficult. But some tweaks could produce a sea change in transport patterns.

By Dave Keating

As summer comes to an end, Germany’s train stations are heaving. Trains are being cancelled left and right, and passengers are being stuffed standing in every available bit of space inside. While this sudden increase in interest in public transport might seem like good news for the climate, analysts say the policy motivating it is incomplete and not delivering significant climate benefits.

The stated purpose of the policy, which has allowed for unlimited use of all German public transport except high-speed and intercity trains for just €9 per month this summer, was to give people relief from sky-high fuel prices and inflation. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail company, said at the start of the summer the goal was to attract new customers or to get old customers to return to “help them get to know the possibilities and advantages of local public transport”.

Measured by its popularity, the programme has been a huge success. Thirty-one million people bought the card in its first month alone. The number of train trips longer than 30 kilometres in July was 42% higher than the same month in 2019, before the pandemic began, according to the German national statistics office Destatis. In rural areas popular with tourists, the number of trips rose by an average of 80%. The highest rise was in middle-distance trips between 30km and 100km, which doubled.

“It’s been an opportunity for regions where people otherwise wouldn’t have gone,” says Jon Worth, a transport and politics blogger based in Berlin. “It’s been a boom for tourism out in the countryside. But has it done what was the stated aim at the beginning, which was to get people to use cars less and use public transport more? There the data is questionable.”

While medium-distance trips have significantly increased, a survey by public transit association VDV in July found a 25% increase in demand for public transport generally nationwide, with only 20% of those using the €9 ticket being people who weren’t previously using public transport. But the survey didn't ask people what the purpose was of their trip. That data is still hard to come by but an emerging picture suggests the tickets were mainly used for medium-distance leisure travel that would not have happened otherwise.

“Has it changed how we behave in Berlin? Not really,” says Worth. “Has it changed how we go [long distance] from Berlin to Stuttgart? No, because you don’t want to do that on a regional train because it’s too slow and unpleasant. But it’s made those medium-distance [leisure] trips that were quite expensive before suddenly more appealing.” The German Institute for Economic Research is conducting a survey on people’s travel habits over the summer, which should have results published in September.

Not displacing cars

Such data is important because the German government, which was formed nine months ago, is debating internally whether to extend the ticket past 31 August. The Greens want to find some way to extend the scheme, with perhaps a slightly higher monthly price – saying tax breaks for company cars should be axed in order to pay for it. But their coalition partner the liberal FDP are dead set against extending the ticket, saying it is too costly. The centre-left Social Democrats, the largest of the three parties in the coalition, are caught in the middle.

Philipp Kosok, the transport project manager of the think tank Agora Verkehrswende, poured some cold water on the enthusiasm for the €9 ticket earlier this month when he said that so far the data “indicates that the €9 ticket generates more traffic and, above all, hardly shifts it". The ticket is not causing a modal shift from road to rail, it is only motivating people to take trips by train they wouldn’t have taken otherwise. "There are indications that we have no clear climate advantage with this action,” he told the German press agency DPA.

The data is still being analysed, he cautioned, but so far it appears that about a quarter of the trips using the €9 ticket would not have been made at all without it. According to an analysis of aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data by Destatis, the volume of road transport remained the same nationwide this summer as in 2019 and continued to be the main method of transportation in Germany. In fact, the number of trips between 30km and 100km by car was slightly higher than 2019.

“If you use a car on an daily basis – you’ve bought it, you’ve insured it, you’ve paid for a parking space – is three months of low-cost public transport really going to change your behaviour?” Asks Worth. “It’s not very likely, at least for your everyday trips. But a permanent change of behaviour is definitely possible. If you could know this would be solid for a year or two at least, then you would change your behaviour.”

What is next?

Is such an extension possible? The issue remains complicated within the governing coalition. The summer’s €9 ticket was already the product of a messy political compromise between the Greens and the Liberals. The FDP wanted to reduce tax on fuel so people who drive would pay less. The Greens said they would only sign off on that if public transport users were compensated as well. As the policy evolved, the government justified it on climate grounds highlighting the possibility for modal shift – even though its genesis came from a desire to compensate two separate groups of users.

Worth thinks continuing the price at €9 is not realistic, but he would like to see the model extended with a higher price. “It’s important to ask now, what has this done, and could it change how public transport looks in Germany in the future? It’s made using it incredibly simple compared to the situation normally – one flat rate and you can take any train. I’d like an equivalent ticket for €29 a month. Something priced at a low enough level that it’s easier to just always have one and not have the hassle of finding and buying individual tickets.”

But just offering the ticket long term will not be enough to get people out of their cars, he warns. It has to be accompanied by major investment in increasing the availability, capacity and reliability of public transport. The scenes of overcrowded, cancelled and broken-down trains in Germany over the summer haven’t helped the reputation of the €9 ticket. “Deutsche Bahn has been cut back to the bones over the past years, there’s not much slack in the system,” says Worth.

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At this stage, it appears the ticket will be ending on 31 August as planned, but there may be a new incarnation by the end of the year. What that might look like will depend on the data that comes out over the coming months analysing the ticket’s effect over the summer. But at a time when Germany is confronting both a climate crisis and a Russian energy import crisis, it is clear that finding a way to move people from cars to trains is something worth pursuing – even if this summer’s experiment didn’t accomplish it.

“It’s absolutely vital to reduce car usage for climate change reasons, and also noise and air pollution in German cities is a big problem particularly in poor neighbourhoods,” says Worth. “You have to allow people as much as possible to live a self-directed life without driving a car. Germany’s big cities have pretty good public transport networks compared to other European countries. So, you’ve got to find means, using a combination of carrots and sticks, to persuade people to make that change.”

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