How does local transport help the environment?

Does free local transport help fight air pollution?

The European Union has threatened Germany with consequences if the federal government fails to bring the heavy air pollution in some cities under control. That is why the government is now planning to offer free local public transport in five German cities on a trial basis. One of the few cities in the world that has established such a project on a long-term basis is Estonia's capital, Tallinn. DW spoke to traffic expert Oded Cats, who has dealt intensively with the Tallinn example.

DW: Why did Tallinn introduce free public transport - and was the experiment successful?

Oded Cats: The goals were to make buses and trains more popular, to reduce car traffic and to improve the mobility of the unemployed and people on low incomes. That last goal has been achieved I think. Many low-income people are now on the move more.

Cats: Free bus tickets don't attract drivers

When switching to local public transport, the immediate effect was rather small. But a year or two after the measure was introduced, there was an increase of around 14 percent in local transport users. However, a large part of the increase came from people who were previously pedestrians, or from those who already drove the bus and then did so more often or for longer. Only a small proportion came from motorists. So it cannot be said that there is less car traffic or that the traffic jams and the air pollution associated with them have decreased.

Why didn't the offer attract more drivers?

We know from other cities that have tested free public transport for a short period of time that money is rarely a factor when people decide against the bus and in their car. It has more to do with the quality of the offer. If you let public transport run more often instead of reducing prices, you are much more likely to get new customers.

In many European cities, air pollution is higher than allowed

What should Germany do to get more people to leave their cars?

We have a lot of evidence, from Tallinn and many other places, that the most effective way of doing this is to increase the cost of using the car, which is the cost of every trip: gasoline prices, parking fees and a city center toll. The costs that arise when you actually use your car and not just park it in the garage must be increased.

The point is that drivers should pay for the undesirable side effects that car traffic brings, such as air pollution and congested roads. You can do that with these measures. It is only when drivers are faced with the cost of their decision that they may change their minds. And then there must be good alternatives in local public transport.

What can we learn from other cities that have tried free local transport?

We can see why it didn't work out. There are many cities - one of the best known is Hasselt in Belgium - that had free local transport for years and then had to reintroduce paid tickets because it was financially unsustainable. It was a painful decision for those in charge, but it had to be done.

In Tallinn, Estonia, bus and train travel is free for residents

How could Tallinn, a city of half a million people, afford free local transport?

In Estonia, local taxes depend on where you live. There were large numbers of people living in Tallinn but registered elsewhere. As a result, the city lost a significant amount of tax income. The offer of free local transport should convince these people to register in Tallinn, because it only applies to registered residents. With the newly gained tax income, the city was able to cover the costs for the local transport tickets.

Oded Cats is Assistant Professor of Transportation and Planning at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. He also works as a researcher at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. His research focus is on the intersection of transport networks and the associated operational business, politics and travel behavior.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Ahwaz, Iran

    The city of Ahvaz ranks first by a wide margin when it comes to smog: it is the dirtiest city in the world. This is due to the heavy industry in and around the city that processes oil, metal and natural gas.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Ulan Bator, Mongolia

    The capital of Mongolia is not only the coldest, but also the second dirtiest metropolis in the world. During the freezing winter, traditional heating with coal and wood accounts for 60-70 percent of the smog in the city.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Lahore, Pakistan

    Air pollution is one of Pakistan's central environmental problems. The situation is particularly dire in Lahore, the country's second largest city. The reason for the smog is - in addition to the high volume of traffic and waste incineration - the natural dust from the surrounding desert regions.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    New Delhi, India

    In the 9.9 million metropolis, the number of vehicles increased from 180,000 to almost 3.5 million within 30 years. Nevertheless, coal-fired power plants are primarily to blame for air pollution: They contribute up to 80 percent of harmful emissions.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    Sandstorms - like here over Riyadh - favor the development of smog because they additionally increase the particle concentration in the air. The intense solar radiation transforms the dirt from the exhaust gases from industry and traffic into ozone.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Cairo, Egypt

    The poor air quality in Cairo causes diseases such as chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Every year between 10,000 and 25,000 people die from it. Reasons for the pollution are the high volume of traffic and the fast growing industry.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Dhaka, Bangladesh

    According to a study by the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, around 500 people die each year in New York and Tokyo as a result of polluted air. In the seven million metropolis of Dhaka there are almost 15,000. There, the researchers measured the world's highest concentration of sulfur dioxide.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Moscow, Russia

    The polluted air in megacities is composed quite differently. Most of all, Moscow is characterized by an increased concentration of hydrocarbons. The year-round westerly wind ensures fresher air, at least in the western parts of the city.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    Mexico City, Mexico

    The smog problem in Mexico City is exacerbated by the geographic location. The city lies in a basin and is surrounded by volcanoes up to 5000 meters high. Because of the high levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrocarbons in the air, Mexico City has long been considered the dirtiest city in the world.

  • Smog alarm: The air is particularly thick in these ten metropolises

    New York, USA

    New York is considered the cleanest big city in the USA. The use of biodiesel and the expansion of public transport contribute to this.

    Author: Julia Vergin