Germany considering free public transportation to take on air pollution

Facing EU penalties over poor air quality, Germany has said it wants to test free public transport in five cities. Bonn and Essen are among the cities to serve as testing ground for the new project.

Under pressure from the European Union to rein in air pollution, the German government said it is considering a plan that would make public transportation free in its most polluted cities, according to a letter seen by German media on Tuesday.

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Business | 30.01.2018

EU warns Germany on air pollution

The letter, sent to European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in Brussels, was written by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt and chancellery office chief Peter Altmaier.

Read moreGermany's air pollution: Clean up or pay up?

The German government proposed the free public transportation scheme to encourage people to leave their cars at home, thereby reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions and particulate matter.

Nature and Environment | 18.05.2018

They selected five cities to roll out the program: Bonn, Essen, Reutlingen, Mannheim and the town of Herrenberg which is south of Stuttgart — one of Germany's most heavily polluted cities.

The letter also reportedly proposed instating "low emission zones" for large transporter vehicles, increasing the number of electric-powered taxis and boosting incentives for electric cars in general.

Read moreGermany to double 'clean air' projects fund

Nature and Environment

Addicted to coal

The future looks bright for Germany’s biggest surface coal mine. Even as the country introduces climate protection measures and switches to renewable energy sources, its dependence on coal-fueled power plants is unabated. Continued reliance on coal means Germany is unlikely to meet its 2020 emission goals. That's not good for the environment, but the view from the Hambach mine remains impressive.

Nature and Environment

Stripping the earth

The Hambach surface mine stretches seemingly endless into the horizon. Located west of Cologne, it is Germany’s largest surface mine at 4,300 hectares - and expanding. Despite efforts to use more renewable energy sources, Germany’s industry still relies on the cheap brown coal to supply 40% of its energy needs.

Nature and Environment

Disappearing villages

It won’t be long before the village of Manheim disappears. The nearby Hambach mine is expanding and will soon engulf the houses. Already many of the residents in the 1,000 year-old village have abandoned their homes. Since 1989 four similar villages have been razed to make room for the brown surface mine.

Nature and Environment

No alternative

By 2020 the diggers will have reached the village. Until then, workers will tear down the remaining houses and the residents will relocate. Kurt Rüttgers, one about 500 remaining residents and owner of the local pub, has watched the town fade and disappear: “Since my childhood I have known Manheim would disappear one day. It’s sad, but there seems to be no alternative to coal mining right now.”

Nature and Environment

Investing in renewable energy

Elsewhere in Germany, companies have made the switch to renewable energy sources. Soaring 109 meters above the surrounding fields, these wind turbines located about an hour from Berlin’s city center, provide emissions-free energy for the capital.

Nature and Environment

Harvesting the wind

Some 27,000 wind turbines have sprouted up across the country in the last decade. Although animal rights activists argue the giant propellers cause harm to birds and some people complain the towers are an eyesore in the landscape, the turbines are Germany’s biggest source of renewable energy. Until recently, the government heavily subsidized wind parks.

Nature and Environment

Could housing save the climate?

For some Germans saving the climate starts at home. Years ago artist Priska Wollein decided to build her atelier near Berlin as a passive energy house to reduce her carbon footprint. Built mostly out of wood, it’s heated by geothermal energy and the ventilation is specifically modified to keep warmth inside.

Nature and Environment

The home of the future

What if a house didn’t just reduce its energy consumption, but rather generates more of it? That’s one of the proposals the German housing industry has come up with in response to new building regulations on energy efficiency. Referred to as the energy plus house, the new model of home is designed to produce its own energy primarily through solar power.

'Not in planning phase yet'

Tuesday's letter left Germany's municipalities, including the ones selected for the free public transportation trials, scratching their heads. When asked about the details of the free ticket plans, a spokeswoman with the city of Bonn told DW that there wasn't much to elaborate on.

"It's not in the planning phase yet," the spokeswoman said, adding that there aren't any rollout dates or further information on how much the federal government will give the city to subsidize free public transportation.

Read moreGermany tight-lipped about industrial pollutants

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Bonn Mayor Ashok Sridharan said he was informed about the government's plans over the weekend, but said in a statement that he was happy that his western German city was selected as one of the "Lead Cities."

"We also have one or two ideas that we can also propose, since we've been working on this topic for some time," Sridharan said.

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German inner cities grapple with air pollution

The tricky road to ticketless rides

When it comes to making ticketless rides a reality, there are some pretty big questions that need to be answered first. 

One of the biggest issues is that cities would need to beef up their public transportation fleets with more buses and streetcars — and eco-friendly ones at that — to accommodate the anticipated rise in passengers.

"It doesn't make sense to use more diesel buses of course," the city of Bonn spokeswoman told DW, adding: "We don't know of any manufacturer that would be able to deliver so many electric buses on such short notice."

The Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) told news agency dpa that they were "critical" of the German government's plans, particularly when it comes to how much it will cost.

According to the VDV, almost half of the money that goes into Germany's municipal public transportation companies comes from ticket sales — some €12 billion ($14.8 billion) a year.

"In the end, taxpayers will have to finance that," a VDV spokeswoman said.

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German 'diesel summit' tries to prevent driving bans

Dodging driving bans

The German government's idea to test free public transportation was also one of Berlin's latest attempts to conform to environmental standards and appease German carmakers.

On February 22, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig will consider whether driving bans for diesel cars are legal.

Read moreOpinion — Farewell to diesel cars in Germany?

Should the court back such bans, it would likely be a game changer for air quality in Germany's smoggiest cities, but also deal a hard blow to the German auto industry.

Brussels has given Germany and eight other EU member states a final chance to offer proposals to reduce vehicle emissions and conform to EU air quality standards.

If the EU's environment chief Vella is not satisfied with Berlin's proposals, he may file a case with the European Court of Justice.

Nature and Environment

Cutting back on diesel

Germany has launched a scheme to retrofit its diesel public buses with exhaust-scrubbing systems, and introduce charging points to encourage drivers to switch to e-cars. Still, environmentalists say that's not enough. They want all diesel vehicles — including private cars — retrofitted, or taken off the road.

Nature and Environment

Taking cars off streets

Milan, one of Italy's most polluted cities, has banned cars from its downtown area during certain hours. Other cities in Italy and abroad have experimented with similar schemes, for example permitting only cars with odd or even license plates on the road at given times in order to limit the amount of traffic.

Nature and Environment

Free public transport

The Macedonian capital of Skopje is battling with pollution levels up to 15 higher than permitted by the EU — though it's not yet a member state, so isn't facing fines. Macedonia's smog problem is largely down to burning coal and emissions from aging, inefficient industry and vehicles. To get people to leave their dirty old cars at home, the government has introduced free public transport.

Nature and Environment

Sounding the alarm

One street in London exceeded the EU's annual nitrogen dioxide limit on January 30 — less than a month into 2018. Actually, this is an improvement — it's the first time in a decade the British capital has kept within the annual limit for more than six days. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced he wants to alert the city's schools on days when pollution is particularly bad.

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