Is Germany’s Plan to Offer Free Public Transit Cheaper Than Unmitigated Climate Change?

Several of Germany’s ministers are brainstorming how to reach the European Union targets for reduced air pollution, and one surprising proposal is gaining traction: free public transit. The reason this idea is surprising is the powerful economic role the auto industry plays nationally. This is the home of the Autobahn and Volkswagen’s famous German engineering.

Of course, Volkswagen is perhaps part of the problem. The German government might have been inclined to use various incentives and deterrents to encourage that automaker and others to improve emission standards or move hybrid or fully electric vehicles. But since a massive industry conspiracy to cheat emission tests was uncovered in the German auto giant, pushing to reduce the number of private vehicles on the road and leaving the auto industry out of the plan may seem more attractive than it had. Certainly the optics are better.

Leaving that context aside, this proposal is still kind of amazing. Reduced fees for transit passes and subsidies for users and industry alike are one thing. A totally free transit system is something else altogether. For one thing, the possibility of increased ridership compensating for the lower fees is out the window when there are no fees to begin with.

But the German government is pragmatic. If three ministers are backing this, you can safely assume that free transit is possibly one of the cheapest solutions to the complex but well-understood problem of vehicle emissions. Emissions from fossil-fuel burning vehicles are a public health problem, an environmental problem, and a national security problem. The cost of either inaction or insufficient action is markedly higher than the economic costs of much more dramatic action now.

It’s somewhat analogous to maintaining a home. What if you’re dealing with a leaky window? You can spend some time, money, and effort attending to the leak, which may include replacing weatherstripping and replacing or repairing the frame in order to make a better fit and seal. All of this is inconvenient and may cost a few hundred dollars, and these things don’t always happen when it is convenient to deal with. Maybe you feel like you can’t easily spare the money or even the attention.

If you allow the leak to continue unabated, however, it might be necessary to tear up the wall and carpet as mold and mildew damage materials and create a potential health crisis in your home. This has become a much more expensive job, because it was allowed to reach disaster levels.

The only problem with this analogy is the timeline: we’ve been edging into the disaster zone for a while, but we’re still not past the point at which dramatic, targeted action now can pay off for us later.

German and other world governments across the political spectrum are acting while a partisan U.S. government is still spinning its wheels. American voters from both parties are getting sick of it. I suspect we’ll see just how sick of it at midterms. A refreshed Congress might be able to show the world what America getting serious looks like.

Photo credit: CZmarlin

51 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad A1 months ago

Great idea.

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Misss D
Shari F3 months ago

Of course it is worth it. Clear roads, less congestion, less pollution, less climate change, healthier people, healthier planet - the list goes on. Bring it on!

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John W
John W3 months ago

TYFST

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heather g
heather g3 months ago

Most North Americans seem to be too arrogant to use public transport. Many are out-of-touch with the rest of the world - especially if they haven't travelled a lot.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 months ago

Nothing is ever free. The people will pay for it. The question is whether it is worth it.

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Sandra V
Sandra Vito3 months ago

Thanks

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Carole R
Carole R3 months ago

Free transportation would probably catch on.

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Barbara M
Barbara M3 months ago

I wish them well with this

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O3 months ago

th

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Lorraine A
Lorraine Andersen3 months ago

Very interesting idea. Get people to stop driving their cars and onto public transit.

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