A German City Is Testing Free, Unlimited Public Transportation For 2 Big Reasons

But will it work?

Tübingen, a city in southwest Germany, is testing free public transportation for all residents in an effort to both lower emissions and make it easier for low-income people to travel around the university locale, but there's evidence to suggest such a drastic move might not actually be worth it.

According to HuffPost, this pilot project, which is paid for by Tübingen's own funds, began about two weeks ago and will provide free rides on Saturdays for a period of two years. The publication also notes local authorities have spent the last seven years advocating for free and unlimited public transport which would be supported by a flat 15-euro monthly tax for all residents, but such a drastic overhaul would require a change in law.

"We already have a decent system in Tübingen, with 89,000 inhabitants and 20 million rides a year," Tübingen Mayor Boris Palmer explained to the outlet. "One in three people uses public transport regularly; a third sometimes; and we are looking at the third that never uses it." By making said method of transportation free, Palmer and others hope incentivize those who have their own cars to use it, which has the potential to lower fossil fuel emission and be better for the environment. 

In a Facebook post from earlier this month that has been translated from German, Palmer also said, "Free transport is not only ecological, but also social."

Still, there are obstacles to providing free public transportation in Tübingen and elsewhere. A chief concern is cost, as a municipal memo reportedly stated no-fee public transport for all would cost an estimated $18 million. Furthermore, in other locations where free public transportation has been tested, such as the city of Hasselt in Belgium, fares had to be reintroduced after 16 years because free rides became impossible to support financially. 

And even in places where free public transportation has been much more successful, such as Estonia's capital city of Tallinn, downsides include increased congestion and pollution in certain areas because people actually walk less, and those who would normally walk instead rely on public transportation. That said, Tallinn's program has been successful enough on July 1, the whole country will roll out free bus travel thanks to central government subsidies.

Speaking of subsidies, The Atlantic reported that in America "government subsidies cover between 57 and 89 percent of operating costs for buses and 29 to 89 percent of those for rail." The publication also noted that even though many public-transit systems are "quite affordable," a 2014 study in Transportation Research found that simply telling people just how heavily subsidized their subways and buses were made them willing to pay more money to ride.

In other words, while there is something to be said for eliminating public transit fares, there's little evidence to suggest that doing so is sustainable, especially in larger cities. Instead, Dr. Oded Cats, assistant professor in transport and planning at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, suggested to HuffPost that cities should invest in a mix of transport options and encourage conscious choices.

Cover image via Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock.

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