Back in the summer of 2022 it was party time – almost literally – for passengers on German public transport. For the months of June, July and August it cost just 9 Euro a month, flat rate, to use regional and local public transport anywhere in Germany (basically pretty much anything except IC, ICE and Flixtrain was included).
Sure, this led to a lot of people making trips to places they’d otherwise not have gone, and it led to overcrowding on some routes. But it meant you could make a trip like Berlin-Görlitz or Hamburg-Westerland (Sylt) without that nagging feeling of “is this trip actually worth the ticket price?” And as anyone who has ever tried to make sense of German public transport tariffs knows, the joyous simplicity of just being able to get on and go, and not have to decipher complex apps or ticket machines, was a major step forward.
Now the debate rages in German politics about what to do next.
But before looking forward, it is important to look back – at how this experiment came about.
The 9 Euro Ticket was essentially a reaction. The FDP in the governing coalition at federal level wanted to do something for car drivers facing higher petrol prices at the pumps and they came up with the so-called Tankrabatt – a temporary reduction in fuel tax. The reaction from the Grüne in the coalition was “well, what about public transport users – what do they get?” and out of that conflict came the 9 Euro Ticket. At no point was there a rigorous assessment of exactly what and for whom the 9 Euro Ticket was for.
After the summer some critics said “well that was a waste of money, no one abandoned their cars as a result of the 9 Euro Ticket!” but that was not even ever really a stated policy aim, and anyway if you have bought and insured the car already, who is going to abandon it thanks to a three month experiment? (UPDATE: as a result of critique of this point, a clarification – the 9 Euro Ticket did temporarily reduce traffic congestion. When I say “abandoned their cars” I mean the 9 Euro Ticket did not result in people getting rid of their cars altogether, and nor could that have been expected. There was some substitution for individual journeys during the three month period.)
So the 9 Euro Ticket was both massively radical, and – in terms of consequences – strangely ill thought through. And, importantly when we look to the future, the 9 Euro Ticket has predominantly anchored the price of the ticket (and to some extent the simplicity of it) in the public debate. The fundamentals – who is public transport for, what would an adequate system to finance public transport look like, what modal shares do we want – remain largely untouched.
In the aftermath of the 9 Euro experiment, by the autumn of 2022, Transport Minister Wissing from the FDP realised there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. A flat rate public transport ticket – whatever the car friendly FDP really thought of it – was not going to go away as a political issue, so better run with it than be seen to be opposing it. That then led to months of public arguments between the federal government and the 16 Länder about what a suitable price point for the ticket would be, and who would be able to get it and how. 9 Euro became 49 Euro, the pitch up and buy it simplicity of the 9 Euro Ticket became a subscription system that ought to still be possible to cancel each month (although the details are still unclear), and rather restrictive rules on taking bicycles, children and dogs with you.
And so we find ourselves with this 49 Euro Ticket that no one really wants.
Wissing and the FDP did not really want it in the first place, but felt they could not oppose it per se.
The Grüne – whose idea started all of this – would prefer something simpler and probably even cheaper, but are grateful that they have got something here, and they fear losing what they have got.
Those who suddenly benefitted from the 9 Euro Ticket and used it to change how they did trips in their free time are left wondering whether 49 Euro is going to make sense – you need to make a good number of long-ish leisure trips to justify that cost each month, and the subscription system complexity might act as a disincentive.
Public transport authorities, and bus, tram, metro and train operators, did not want any of this in the first place – as it stretched their already thin finances even thinner, and worsened overcrowding on already overcrowded lines. These organisations – always conservative in how they behave – have been unable to see that more passengers might actually be an opportunity for public transport as a whole, and instead give the impression that this whole thing was a burden foisted upon them. (UPDATE: there has been criticism that this paragraph is too categoric. This BahnBlogStelle piece quotes a bunch of people from across the public transport sector. There are some positive voices, but many fearful ones too)
People who already have monthly public transport tickets and pay anything between 60 and 250 Euro a month for these, depending on the region and distance travelled, are financially going to benefit – their costs are going to be capped at 49 Euro, and with the additional benefit of being able to use the ticket right across the country. But even here the picture is not universally positive – the more restrictive rules on taking bikes, children and animals with you might, at the margin, even increase costs for families. And there will be some monthly ticket holders who would argue paying more is OK, if that led to service improvements – that public transport authorities will now argue is financially impossible to provide.
Medium term we will see if the new, lower price entices more everyday commuters out of their cars and onto public transport – the costs might be low enough to mean some permanent modal shift will happen. This is going to be the real test – but it is going to be months or even years before we know the outcome. And potential commuter switchers from cars to public transport are currently not the most vocal group in the public debate around this ticket.
So that, overall, is why I feel some uneasiness about this debate in Germany just now. The 9 Euro Ticket was an extraordinary experiment, and the 49 Euro Ticket (Deutschlandticket) is an understandable but somewhat underwhelming next step, but no-one can really unreservedly say “this is what we really want” – because no one really wanted this in this form, borne as it was of a political compromise in early 2022. You are not supposed to do policymaking about public transport having anchored a price, rather than a service level or a purpose, in people’s heads.
But we are where we are, and for those of us who believe in public transport, we have a responsibility to make the best we can of it.