In a letter to the EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella, the German government said it was "considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars" in 5 German cities, including former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. The move is an attempt to meet EU air pollution targets and avoid being handed down a big fine for exceeding limits.
The German Greens have long supported similar initiatives to reduce air pollution. In an interview on the topic, Anton Hofreiter, Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen said he welcomes the move but questions whether it can be a long-term viable solution. He also puts forward a Green perspective for tackling the issue.
INTERVIEW - Anton Hofreiter, Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen
Anton Hofreiter, Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. Photograph: © gruene-bundestag
What can be said against the idea of free public transport?
Nothing! We Greens in the Bundestag are supporting free public transport pilot projects. But this needs a comprehensive concept. The Greens are ready to launch such a comprehensive, smart concept for public transport in local communities. However, a good public transport service costs money, so the citizens affected should be able to co-decide on new financing models. Principally, new legal frameworks have to be created for new financing models, such as a local transport tax. But, to date, the CDU has rejected that in the state of Baden-Württemberg.
What concrete ideas do the Greens have for cheaper local transport?
We have presented a concept for a ‘Mobilpass’, which is cost-efficient, connected across all modes of transport, and easy to use. And it is particularly affordable for socially disadvantaged people and young families. In Hesse, the Greens’ Minister of Transport, Tarek Al-Wazir, has just introduced a state-wide student ticket. The federal government, on the other hand, decided two years ago to freeze funding for municipal transport at a low level until 2025. Many infrastructure projects have been frozen for years, but the need for refurbishment continues to grow. This is one reason why public transport has continued over the years to become more expensive and in many places is overloaded.
Why have the three federal ministers made this proposal right now?
For many years, the German government has simply ignored the heavy burden of toxic nitrogen oxides. Now that a lawsuit is pending before the European Court of Justice, environment and transport ministers are coming up with flawed proposals that will not solve the real problem. In the interest of car companies, the federal government is continuing to play for time, abandoning cities and those people affected. These pilot projects are purely for show – not thought-out and not calculated.
Why are the five pilot projects a sham from a Green perspective?
Pilot projects are there to gain experience – they must be evaluated and prepared for potential projects later. However, in order to detoxify cities and avoid the imminent lawsuit currently before the European Court of Justice, we need immediate and effective measures, such as the introduction of a ‘blue badge’ that enables cities to control car traffic. The selection of the five cities is unclear – extremely badly affected cities, such as Stuttgart, Dusseldorf and Munich, have not been included.
What needs to be improved most urgently in public transport in order to get more people to use it?
The federal government must support the municipalities as much as possible and must not leave them alone with the traffic evolution. Public transport needs dense networks, fast rhythm, and reliable and comfortable services. And it needs enough buses and trains to be able to transport the potential newcomers. This is a task that cannot be solved with a quick fix. The public transport infrastructure is delapidated in many regions and often not barrier-free. That is why the federal and state governments must jointly provide more funds for public transport. However, for years, the federal government in particular has continued to expand the building of roads, providing billions in subsidies. This is futile.
What measures would the Greens use to avoid a European Commission lawsuit?
The legal limits for nitrogen oxides have been massively exceeded in many regions for many years. The European Environment Agency estimates that in Germany alone 10,000 people die each year from poisonous respiratory air. The main cause is known: diese cars, which emit a multiple of the permitted emission quantities. On the other hand, only instruments that help cities to control car traffic in a targeted manner, such as the blue badge, can help. It may not be popular with motorists initially, but in a state governed by law, ‘health protection first’ must apply. Mind you: technically, the billion-dollar auto industry can retrofit dirty diesel cars and make them clean, but the federal government does not want to oblige them to do so.
This interview was first published in German on the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen website.