Can free public transport really reduce pollution? But to reduce pollution, it might be better off investing in improved services and penalizing car use, expert Oded Cats explains.
Under pressure from the European Union to tackle its air deadly air pollution, the German government is considering making public transport free in its most polluted cities. Few cities have attempted such a scheme — with the notable exception of Tallinn. We asked transport expert Oded Cats, who authored an in-depth study on Tallinn’s fare-free scheme, whether Germany can reduce pollution by emulating the Estonian capital.
DW: Why did Tallinn introduce fare-free transport – and was it effective?
Oded Cats: The aims were to promote public transport, to reduce car traffic, and especially to improve mobility for low income and unemployed groups. The latter, I think, we can consider has been achieved. So we do see that a lot of people from low income groups, the unemployed, do travel more frequently.
When it comes to shifting into public transport, we saw an immediate effect, which was fairly small. But about a year or two years after it was introduced, we saw a more long-standing effect: a roughly 14 percent increase in public transport [users] — a large share of which is coming from people who used to walk. So it’s questionable whether this is desirable.
If you can take public transport for free you may substitute the short trip you used to walk for public transport. Most of the increase in public transport ridership stems from either people who walked previously, or previous transport users who travel more frequently or perform longer trips. Only a small part of those additional trips come from people who also used the car. So we cannot say that there was a net gain in terms of reducing car traffic, or the congestion and emissions associated with it.