As part of their response to the cost-of-living crisis, governments in Europe and beyond have taken action to reduce the cost of travel.
There is enormous pressure to act with citizens facing huge increases in their fuel and energy costs, alongside many other essentials. Some governments have taken steps to reduce fuel costs while others have reduced the cost of public transport. Some have done both.
The most famous example is probably Germany, where the new coalition government surprised everybody - including transport authorities - with the announcement that local public transport would be available for just €9 a month in June, July and August. Yes, you read that right - €9!
Unsurprisingly this offer has proven to be very popular and it has also created a welcome buzz around public transport. In June alone, 31 million people bought the pass and there have been widespread reports of crowded buses and trains as Germans take advantage of it.
Weekly surveys by state-owned rail carrier Deutsche Bahn and VDV, the German public transport association, have discovered one in five users have switched from their car to bus, tram and train for the first time. In the first week of the scheme, regional train journeys increased by almost half from pre-pandemic levels. Local trips under 100km increased by almost 60%.
Germany’s national office of statistics has said overall use of the rail network is about 42% up on the last comparable pre-pandemic June of 2019. Leisure travel is already leading the recovery for many public transport networks post-Covid, but the €9 ticket has put rocket boosters on that in Germany with rail patronage up by as much as 83% at weekends.
Meanwhile, there is also some evidence that this initiative reduced traffic, as motorists ditched their cars in favour of more competitively-priced public transport alternatives - and this is despite the federal government also cutting fuel taxes for car drivers for the same three-month period. Analysis by satellite navigation specialists, TomTom, also reveals there has been a reduction in car congestion in 23 of the 26 German cities it probed.
One of the attractions of the scheme has been its sheer simplicity. Germany is well known for its complicated and sometimes archaic rules and regulations surrounding local public transport ticketing, but the headline €9 fare has cut through that bureaucracy. Volker Wissing, the German federal transport minister, said the scheme had only highlighted the confusion and of having too many operators with too many differing ticket tariffs. He said that the success of the scheme was such that he would like the entire German public transport ticketing system simplified in the future.
Everyone’s a winner, it seems. The travelling public can make savings at a time of increased financial hardship and towns and cities (and public transport operators!) benefit from reduced traffic.
The question now is what to do when the offer expires in September, but there are already calls for the €9 scheme to be extended into the autumn. Markus Söde, the minister-president of the state of Bavaria has gone one step further and floated the idea of a new €365 annual ticket that would be valid across all local public transport in Germany. Watch this space.
It’s not just Germany though - other countries have introduced similar initiatives to ease the pain of sharply rising costs.
Ireland reduced public transport fares by 20%. You can now travel around cities including Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford for only €1.35 (down from €1.68) for adults and €0.65 (down from €0.80) for children using a Transport for Ireland Leap Card.
Spain is maintaining a discount on fuel prices for motorists but it is also cutting public transport by 30% for fares handled by regional governments and local authorities - and offering FREE rail journeys on commuter and medium-distance routes from September until the end of the year!
New Zealand has cut petrol excise duties and road user charges for motorists and halved public transport fares for three months.
In Great Britain, the ‘Great British Rail Sale’ saw more than 128 million miles of discounted journeys travelled on UK railways this spring. However, the UK Government’s main transport response to the cost of living crisis has been to cut fuel duty by 5p per litre for 12 months, a policy that has cost £5bn but has largely gone unnoticed by those on petrol station forecourts.
Before he was ousted last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was reported to be working on an initiative to cap single bus fares in England at £2 for six months from October. Supporters claim that a policy like this would get noticed and encourage positive changes in travel behaviour at a fraction of the cost of the fuel duty reduction.
All of these initiatives have been in response to the cost-of-living crisis, but there are many other examples of government interventions to reduce the cost of public transport in recent years.
One of the most radical examples is Luxembourg, which is one of a growing number of locations where public transport is free. This small and wealthy country, which is home to 614,000 people, made public transport free of charge in 2020. It’s welcomed by riders, of course, but there’s reported to be little evidence that it reduced car use.
Free travel can be targeted at certain segments of society. For example, without much fanfare, Scotland introduced free travel for all those under the age of 22 last January.
Finally, you’ll struggle to find a better example of a sustained, nationwide public transport fares discount than Austria’s KlimaTicket (Climateticket). “The new KlimaTicket Ö really offers something to everyone - namely everything: All public transport in Austria with a single ticket,” the marketing states. It costs €1,095 (€3 a day), and €821 for those aged under 26 or over 65 and disabled travellers.
Travel, like eating and heating, is essential for us to live and work. It can be a luxury, but it is often an essential purchase for us as individuals and those who depend on us. Perhaps we will see more initiatives like KlimaTicket as governments around the world seek to guarantee affordable and sustainable mobility for their citizens in the face of spiralling fuel and energy costs.