We’ve seen it before. A city — Paris, specifically — eliminating fares on public transportation when air pollution levels reach a health-compromising high.

What we haven’t seen is a country proposing a pollution-curbing free transit scheme for its worst-offending cities. Leave it to Germany.

Unlike in Paris, where fares for subways and buses have been only briefly suspended when air quality takes a turn for the stifling, a just-announced pilot program being considered for five cities struggling with poor air quality in western Germany — Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Mannheim and Reutlingen — would be more permanent, not just for oppressively smoggy days. The idea is largely the same: By eliminating fares, there’s hope that motorists will ditch their cars and rely on public transportation.

The trial will launch in the five cities — all but Herrenberg, a suburb of Stuttgart, have populations north of 100,000 with Essen, Mannheim and Bonn being the largest of the lot — by "the end of this year at the latest" according a trio of German ministers.

Essen, Germany Essen, once a soot-smothered industrial hub, was named European Green Capital 2017. It's one of five German cities selected to pilot a variety of anti-pollution measures. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars," says a letter from the ministers, sent to the European Commission. "Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany."

Whether or not the pilot cities actually choose to eliminate fares on buses, trams and trains isn’t certain.

"It's up to the municipalities themselves to decide if they want to try it," environment ministry spokesman Stephan Gabriel Haufe explained at a recent press conference, somewhat trying to downplay the deservedly headline-grabbing news. "The municipalities would have to come to us with the proposal of free local public transport, and then we would see if it's feasible."

Volkswagen tailpipe, Stuttgart German automakers have been forced to clean up their act since the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015. Still, diesel exhaust remains a leading pollutant in German cities. (Photo: Marijan Murat/AFP/Getty Images)

Other pollution-curbing tactics

The ministers' letter outlines several other air pollution-curbing tactics being mulled over by the government. They include establishing "low emission zones," bolstering car-sharing schemes, providing additional incentives to owners of electric vehicles and restricting emissions from vehicles such as taxis and buses. These potential measures will be trialed first in the five aforementioned cities and, according to Haufe, likely have a better chance of being implemented than the free-fare proposal.

Down the line, the successful initiatives could be implemented in other German cities struggling with congestion and high levels of air pollution.

According to 2015 statistics released by the Federal Environment Ministry, Germany’s most polluted city is its sixth largest, Stuttgart. Serving as capital of the Baden-Württemberg state, Stuttgart neighbors more than half the cities suggested for anti-pollution measures and, ironically, is an historic auto-manufacturing hub, the hometown of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. In 2017, two residents sued Stuttgart's mayor for "bodily harm" caused by air pollution.

Numerous cities in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, also were shown to have high levels of particle dust pollution, the result of exhaust-belching diesel vehicles. Although it has its bad days, Germany’s largest city, Berlin, is in comparatively good shape thanks to various pollution-control efforts enacted in recent years.

Stuttgart, Germany The birthplace of the automobile industry, Stuttgart is also known as 'the German capital of air pollution.' Most of the cities selected to pilot air quality-improving measures are located in the same region. (Photo: Bertram Nudelbach/flickr)

The EU lays down the law

This drastic and potentially game-changing move wasn't born of the German government’s volition. Germany has been making moves in the right direction for several years in the wake of the 2015 Volkswagen "Dieselgate" scandal.

The ticketless transit scheme was prompted by pressure from the European Commission on Germany. If the government didn't act, it could have faced legal action and major fines from the European Union. As noted by Reuters, in January the commission "threatened to penalize members that breached EU rules on pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter."

Spain, France and Italy are also among the countries that have received ultimatums.

The financial details of the German plan get a bit tricky. Individual municipalities fund most public transportation systems in German cities, from U-Bahns to S-Bahns to Wuppertal’s astonishing Schwebebahn. According to the Washington Post, ticket sales make up roughly half or more of each system’s earnings.

If systems go fare-less, the federal government would "be expected" to compensate the cities for lost revenue. As the Post notes, that would leave some — and potentially many — of Germany’s public transit systems almost entirely taxpayer funded.

A station on the Bonn Stadtbahn, Germany. A station on the Bonn Stadtbahn, Germany. Would public transit systems be able to handle additional ridership if fares were eliminated as a means of reducing vehicle emissions? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There also are concerns that by making public transportation free, already overloaded systems in large cities such as Berlin, Munich and Hamburg might collapse under the additional weight of thousands of new riders. "I don’t know any manufacturer who would be able to deliver the number of electric buses we would need," Ashok Sridharan, Bonn's mayor, reportedly told a Germany news agency, per the Guardian.

As the Guardian notes, public transportation is already wildly popular in Germany despite the irksome congestion in some cities. It’s also relatively inexpensive. A single ticket to ride the U-Bahn in Berlin costs 2.90 euros. A ride on the London Underground is almost double the price at 4.90 pounds or about 5.50 euros. (In U.S. dollars, it’s roughly $3.60 compared to $6.80.)

In addition to Paris giving transit fares a short-lived kibosh in 2014 (and again in 2016 but not maybe not again in the near future), the South Korean capital of Seoul waived subway and bus fares for the first time in January after particulate matter levels reached an alarming high. As CityLab reports, Milan has offered passengers reduced fares on exceedingly smoggy days in the past and, in 2015, officials in Madrid proposed transition to a gratis public transit system.

North American cities, are you listening?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Polluted German cities eye free public transit
Several German cities are planning to fight air pollution by eliminating fares on public transport.