Making Sustainable Travel Affordable:
Germany’s 9 Euro Ticket Experiment, Its Successor, & other European Transit Schemes
As a response to the cost-of-living crisis sweeping Europe and the rest of the world, Germany introduced the €9 ticket to make public transport more affordable this summer. A scheme like this has never been implemented on such a large scale before and many have seen it as a positive step to encouraging more climate-friendly modes of transport. Was the scheme a success? What does its successor look like and does it live up to the high expectations? And what other similar policies are being pursued in other European countries?
By: Vivien Keenleyside, Carl Schüppel, and Aria Guevara
At the end of the summer, Germany’s big experiment with its public transport system came to an end. From June to August, people were able to travel throughout Germany on all local and regional public transport (long-distance trains were excluded) with a single ticket at the price of just €9 a month. Proposed by the Green party and announced by the so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition as part of their spring energy relief package, the scheme aimed to alleviate struggles with the cost of living and curb inflation. It also offered an incentive for people to choose a more climate-friendly mode of transport. According to the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), the €9 ticket was bought 52 million times this summer, in addition to the 10 million customers who had the discount applied automatically to pre-existing subscriptions. An unexpected and amusing outcome of the 9 euro ticket was the internet movement which led to large numbers of punks making a trip to the up-market island of Sylt. However, more importantly, the scheme has provoked deeper questions about how to make public transport a more appealing choice in the long-term. Could this be the beginning of a public transportation revolution, and could Germany become a model for the rest of the world to emulate?
A remarkable success
The uptake of the €9 ticket was considerable: according to the VDV, one-fifth of €9 ticket customers had never used public transport before. Moreover, the €9 ticket helped to not only bring public transport usage to the pre-pandemic levels, but also to exceed them. It led to a 42 percent increase in rail travel in June and July compared to the same period in 2019. The success of the scheme can be attributed in part to its simplicity; the Federal Minister for Transport Volker Wissing proclaimed that he wanted to ‘tackle the tariff jungle’, by creating a more straightforward system. Importantly, given the challenging economic circumstances, the scheme gave people the opportunity to enjoy their summer and to take a trip that they otherwise may not have been able to afford. By lowering the cost of transport, Germany was also able to curb inflation by up to 2% according to a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.
Even in this short time, the scheme contributed to reducing emissions and pollution throughout Germany. According to the VDV, 10% of the 1 billion journeys taken each month were by train, using the 9 euro ticket, instead of by car, which prevented approximately 1.8 million tons of CO2 from being emitted. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Potsdam found that the ticket led to a 6 to 7 percent decrease in air pollution levels across Germany, with the effect greatest on weekdays and in urban areas.
Punctuality, practicality, and accessibility problems
Despite huge success, the scheme also faced criticism. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail company, has developed a reputation in recent years for not living up to the national stereotype of punctuality. The significant increase in demand for regional trains as a result of the €9 ticket exacerbated the problem, with punctuality rates dropping from 92.3% in May to 88.5% in June. While the federal government did provide the 16 regional states with €2.5 billion to compensate for the loss of ticket sales, they did not provide funding to increase capacity to adapt to the higher demand. There are also doubts about to what extent the increase in the use of public transport served to replace the use of cars; some initial research has indicated that customers who used public transport before, just started using it more frequently. It has also been pointed out that in rural areas, the number of €9 ticket holders was half as high as in urban areas due to poor public transport connections. It has therefore been argued that funding should be directed towards reducing delays and improving connectivity in rural areas, rather than heavily subsidising ticket costs.
A successor to the 9 euro ticket
Nevertheless, not only the public, but also most politicians in the German federal and state governments agreed that the €9 ticket was a great success and that an attractive public transport system is an important step towards sustainable mobility. Therefore, early on the question was no longer whether the ticket scheme was to be continued, but how to successfully implement its successor. The agreement reached this autumn is as follows: the new ticket – sometimes branded as the ‘Deutschlandticket’, or ‘Klimaticket Deutschland’ – will initially cost €49, although the price could rise over time. It can be purchased digitally and – contrary to the Federal Minister’s original plans – also as a plastic card. In contrast to the €9 ticket, the new single ticket will only be available as a monthly subscription. It is still unclear when the new ticket will be introduced. The target date is January 2023, but due to the time-consuming implementation, the launch could be postponed well into the spring.
The financing was unclear for a long time
For weeks, the federal government and the Länder were unable to reach an agreement over how the new ticket would be funded. The Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport demanded that the states and the federal government contribute the same amount. However, the Länder made this co-financing conditional on a significant increase in federal funds for commissioning bus and rail services from transport companies. They justified this by arguing that even the best ticket would not be of much use without a dense network of routes, and that without an increase in funding there could even be a cutback in local transport services due to increased energy costs and the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2022, the federal government conceded and decided to significantly increase its regional funding.
For many, the new ticket is too expensive
Whether €49 for a month’s local transport throughout Germany is a reasonable price is a matter of debate among the German public. A representative survey by the YouGov polling institute shows that 38 percent of Germans find the ticket too expensive, while just as many think the price is appropriate, with the opinion depending largely on the income of the respondents. Some politicians and organisations, such as the leader of the Green Party Ricarda Lang, the citizens’ movement Campact e.V., and the German Trade Union Confederation, have therefore demanded that the ticket should be accompanied by a €29 offer for people with low incomes. They argue that these people too have the right to mobility and are most affected by the current inflation. What is more, the standard allowance for basic social security recipients only provides €40 for mobility costs, which makes the €49 ticket practically unaffordable. A discounted version for young people is also being discussed.
A cheaper ticket for all
Some organisations go even further, calling for the return of the €9 ticket or a €29 ticket for all. The environmental NGO Greenpeace published a calculation showing that a 29-euro ticket would not cost the country more than a 49-euro ticket since more people would be buying the ticket. A petition initiated by the organisation together with Campact e.V. calling for a climate ticket at a maximum of 1 euro a day has been signed by more than half a million people to date. The climate activists of the ‘Last Generation’, who have recently been in the public eye by blockading streets and throwing mashed potatoes on a Monet painting, are even demanding a permanent 9-euro ticket as a simple measure for social justice and climate protection. One particularly creative approach is the 9-Euro Fund. The idea is simple: the members of the fund pay 9 euros per month and use public transport without buying a ticket. If they are caught in fare evasion, they turn to the 9-Euro-Fund, which pays the increased transport fee from the membership fees. In Berlin, the coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left has already given in to public pressure and is funding, at least temporarily, a 29-euro ticket for everyone. However, the ticket is only valid in the city area itself as the neighbouring state of Brandenburg, which completely surrounds the national capital, did not want to follow suit.
A first evaluation
According to Wissing, the €49 ticket is ‘the biggest public transport fare reform in Germany’ and unique for Europe. In fact, the permanent introduction of a local transport ticket valid for all of Germany at a standard price is a paradigm shift. The federal and state governments are investing more heavily than ever before in climate-friendly bus and rail mobility, and the transport companies can no longer compensate for rising costs with fare increases. Whether this will lead to better or worse local transport services in the future cannot yet be said; for regular passengers, however, the ticket is definitely a win. However, given the stunning success of the €9 ticket, some are understandably disappointed that its successor is not more ambitious, criticising the considerably higher price of €49 and that the ticket has not been extended to include long-distance travel.
The €9 ticket in comparison
Despite the buzz created by Germany’s €9 ticket, it was not implemented in a vacuum. It is one of several schemes working towards increasing the prominence of European rail. Official discourse over the implementation of the German scheme surrounded economic relief due to increasing fuel prices, but other countries have launched transit schemes focused on meeting climate goals and decreasing travelling costs for local commuters.
Austria’s Klimaticket was first offered in 2021 and its goal was for commuters to “go anywhere” within the country for as little as €3 a day. Unlike the German scheme, the Klimaticket is not suited for holidaymakers. The Klimaticket is an annual transit scheme that, in practice, only pays off for people who commute on a regular basis within Austria given the upfront payment of €1.095 or €821 for students and senior citizens. More comparable to the €9 ticket, the Spanish government launched free travel on regional journeys from the Spanish rail company, Renfe (also excluding high-speed rail). Open to commuters and travellers, access to free regional journeys requires a €20 deposit which will be reimbursed to travellers who use it for a minimum of 16 trips.
All three schemes have both social and environmental components driving them, which has led to some debate regarding their respective implementations. Many are in favour of easing the economic burden on local commuters and those most affected by inflation, but identifying who should benefit from these schemes has been challenging for policy makers. Criticism facing the Austrian Klimaticket and the new German €49 ticket focuses on whether they are financially accessible to the demographics they are supposed to target. For example, some argue that the €9 ticket should have only been offered to people under a certain economic threshold, and instead of a 3 month time limit it could have been in place for a longer period of time. As the Spanish government extends the free regional train scheme into the beginning of 2023, it is making a landmark investment in its Transport, Mobility, and Urban Agenda, the largest since 2011. However, concerns over economic stability have raised concerns over whether next year’s budget will allow for this.
Regarding the environmental component, some fear that the focus on affordability will divert the conversation away from further sustainable innovation, which is equally important. Although people are increasingly willing to switch to rail travel out of concern for the environment, it is essential that rail companies and policymakers are still held accountable so that they continue to invest not only in rail, but in all modes of public transport. For individuals to travel more sustainably, countries must take into account affordability, while improving the environmental, time, and reliability aspects of rail travel as well. Stakeholder cooperation and increasing investment is the only way rail can become the default mode of transport for people in Europe.