Berlin downplays smog-beating free transport idea

Germany's environment ministry said it would be up to local municipalities to do most of the leg work. [Ugis Riba / Shutterstock]

The German government on Wednesday (14 February) sought to play down plans to introduce free public transport, a day after the radical proposal to fight air pollution made headlines around the world.

The measure was one of several proposed in a recent letter Berlin sent to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella as Germany scrambles to avoid big fines for falling foul of EU pollution targets.

But faced with a barrage of questions from reporters about how the ticketless travel would be funded and which towns would benefit first, officials were at pains to stress that there were no concrete projects on the table yet and that no test cities had been chosen.

“It’s up to the municipalities themselves to decide if they want to try it,” environment ministry spokesman Stephan Gabriel Haufe told reporters at a weekly press conference.

“The municipalities would have to come us with the proposal of free local public transport, and then we would see if it’s feasible.”

Germany mulls free public transport to quash air pollution menace

“Car nation” Germany has surprised its European neighbours with a radical proposal to reduce road traffic by making public transport free, as Berlin scrambles to meet EU air pollution targets and avoid big fines.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman stressed that the eye-catching measure was just one of many under consideration as Berlin tries to avoid being hauled before the European Court of Justice for breaching EU limits on harmful nitrogen oxides and fine particles in its cities’ air.

“We are in a process of dialogue with the European Commission. They asked us for a list of measures… and that’s what we gave them,” said Steffen Seibert.

“First of all we want to hear what the European Commission thinks of these measures.”

The officials made no mention of how the proposed free travel would be paid for.

And while the letter to Brussels lists five pilot cities, none of them are currently considering any projects involving free travel, Haufe said.

Air pollution legal action decision due in mid-March

The European Commission will decide next month whether to launch legal cases against nine member states that are accused of breaking air pollution action, after additional information was submitted at the eleventh hour.

They may just as easily consider one of the other suggestions, he said, such as car-sharing schemes, further restrictions on emissions from buses and taxis or the creation of low-emissions zones.

Even without the pressure from Brussels, improving air quality has become a top priority for Berlin as dozens of cities face court cases that could slap driving bans on the dirtiest diesel cars — something the government and the nation’s powerful auto industry are keen to avoid.

Haufe stressed that the government’s efforts to combat pollution should be seen as “supplementary” to those by carmakers to clean up their engines.

“Some media have been speculating that we are letting the car industry off the hook. That’s absolutely not the case,” he said.

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