In connection with the climate crisis, the discussion about public transport is gaining momentum. It is widely agreed that this must be strengthened to combat climate change. However, I believe that this is a completely wrong reasoning.
Local public transport, ÖPNV for short, is currently on everyone’s lips. Not only because of the 9-euro ticket, which was a great success with users, but also a big challenge for operators.
Even with regard to the climate crisis, which is currently becoming more and more noticeable. “More public transport, more public transport, more public transport” is the motto everywhere. This is how everyone can reduce their CO2 footprint caused by car journeys.
But for a long time I wondered if this way of thinking was wrong. Bad, because we need future-oriented solutions for the upcoming challenges. And I don’t see that when I call for more public transport. I would now like to explain how I came to this opinion.
Public transport is not a model of the future
We will learn that from the ticket for 9 euros
At first glance, there seems to be a simple answer to the demand for “more public transport”. More public transport, i.e. more connections on local public transport, higher frequencies and larger vehicles such as buses and trains, gives more people the option to leave their car at home and still remain mobile.
But this supposedly quick and easy fix isn’t good on closer inspection. On the one hand, the €9 ticket shows the problems that exist. Because a very cheap offer was created that many people use (I myself am a big fan of the 9 euro ticket and use it a lot).
But the operators were not prepared for the onslaught of passengers. There are no new connections and buses and trains are not just getting faster and bigger. In addition, clock frequencies cannot simply be increased.
Municipalities lack money and employees to expand public transport networks
It could be said that all this could still be changed. But that’s exactly what I doubt. Because for higher cycles you need more employees. And it’s close.
New connections for street lines or subway lines cannot be created just like that. Excessive bureaucracy in Germany ensures that such construction measures take years, if not decades, to implement.
It can be easier for bus lines. Even here, however, at least new buses are needed, which poses investment problems for municipalities in Germany, which are notoriously short of money.
And finally, we have costs. If you really want to make public transport more usable, then it has to be cheaper. Above all, it is necessary to reconsider here. The provision of public transport services should be a service provided by the state to its citizens and not for a fee.
The cost of public transport should be borne by citizens
However, the state does not currently want to afford the one billion that a monthly 9-euro ticket costs. Very surprising, because this ticket actually does exactly what the federal government wants to accomplish: get more people on public transit.
The whole thing is really strange, one might think. Instead, costs should again be covered through the ticket price, whether 39, 49 or 69 euros is not yet clear. However, this will be a rude awakening, as the success of the €9 ticket is a combination of price and ease of use. If one component is left out, the offer quickly becomes less attractive.
What should mobility in Germany look like in the future?
Simply expand the existing public transport offer? No, definitely not. The flaw in thinking when expanding public transport is that public transport expansion cements the past instead of going with a new concept into the future. And that concept is self-driving electric cars.
This may not sound spectacular at first glance. But when you think about it further, it quickly becomes clear what impressive benefits public transport that relies not on buses and trains as before, but on autonomous e-vehicles, would have.
On the one hand, it must be taken into account that the expansion of public transport in the current structure will take many years. For example, the city of Würzburg has been planning one since 2009 new tram line 6. In 2021, it was announced that construction would begin in 2024 and new series 2027 should go into operation.
Assuming a typical delay of one to two years, Line 6 will begin carrying people around the city around 2029. The total construction time is 20 years. And this is not only the case in Würzburg, but such planning periods apply everywhere in Germany.
Nothing is as inflexible as public transport
But does this new tram line even make sense? The problem with such means of transport is that they offer an inflexible supply. The stops are unchanged, as is the frequency of running trains. However, people are increasingly getting used to flexible mobility offers.
Anyone who has ever taken an Uber knows what I mean. No taxi can compete in terms of clarity of prices, flexibility of booking and driving times.
Of course, it can now be said that we are comparing apples to pears here. The tram line or the metro can score above all with price – in short, they are much cheaper.
But isn’t that a mistake in reasoning? Trams and metro are operated by the public sector. Uber, Lyft and Co. are private companies. As such, they are profitable. But what would happen if municipalities or even the Federal Republic of Germany made available a nationwide offer of self-driving cars?
What does the future look like without public transport?
Let’s imagine such a future for a moment. There would be a large number of self-driving cars of various sizes in the city. These vehicles use roads that have been optimized for this purpose.
There is no need to lay tracks for this, just provide software and vehicles. Citizens flexibly book these vehicles for all their needs, be it trips to the doctor or shopping. And all this not only in the inner cities, but also in the surrounding villages.
In addition, this offer would suddenly create a cost-effective replacement for owning a car without any concessions in terms of flexibility, frequency or price – the municipality does not need to maximize profit, but only provide an offer that covers costs. Ideally, it would also be free, if the municipality would recognize public transport as a right of citizens.
Moreover, such a move would give self-driving cars a huge boost. If the Federal Republic of Germany got its act together and transformed public transport into flexible autonomous vehicles, then their development would progress rapidly.
And there would be another effect: Germany would suddenly be at the forefront of shaping the future.
Wishful thinking is allowed
Let’s not only think about mobility, but with a clear view of the future. Let’s leave inflexible offers that are expensive and require a lot of effort and create a new public transport system that gives people a flexible, cost-effective and environmentally friendly option.
Simply expanding mass transit will not save the environment. But a new way of thinking about mobility could do it.