Home Technology Public transit for nine bucks a month? Germany tried it.

Public transit for nine bucks a month? Germany tried it.

MUNICH, Germany — Maybe you buy the 9-Euro-Ticket to travel from Saxony to Bavaria to go to the Helene Fischer concert in Munich. Maybe you buy it to go hiking, taking the train on summer weekends to villages outside Munich. Or maybe you buy it because you’re an American journalist, but also a little bit of a tourist, used to paying $2.75 to wait 15 minutes for a crowded Brooklyn Q train, like me.

Because, really, why not buy it? For 9 euros a month for June, July, August, passengers could buy one ticket to travel anywhere in Germany — on the U-Bahn throughout Berlin, or a regional train from Hamburg to towns along the North Sea.

The German government created the 9-Euro-Ticket as one component of a relief package to mitigate inflation, especially higher energy costs, made worse by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s threats. The ticket was largely subsidized by the federal government, at a cost of about 2.5 billion euros. It offered a financial break, with a climate-friendly incentive on the side. That is, maybe take this extremely affordable train instead of your car.

As of August, about 38 million people bought Germany’s 9-Euro-Ticket, according to Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany’s national railway. In many places, ridership rebounded to pre-Covid-19 levels. Experts and officials said many people used the ticket for leisure, including some passengers who took trips they otherwise might not have been able to afford. Research and surveys on the impacts of the ticket are still ongoing, but one in Munich showed car congestion in the city decreased 3 percent from May to June, and another, by the association for Germany’s transport companies, found about 3 percent chose public transit over car.

An advertisement for the 9-Euro-Ticket at the Brudermühlstaße U-Bahn station in Munich in August 2022.
Jen Kirby for Vox

Those are modest shifts. And the ticket had its hiccups; especially in the early days, routes were overcrowded and strained the rail systems. But the affordability, and the simplicity of travel, all made the 9-Euro-Ticket extremely popular.

“The ticket shows that people want to use public transport — when it’s easy to use and when it’s affordable,” said Lukas Iffländer, the vice chairman of Fahrgastverband Pro Bahn, a passenger association.

The problem is, the 9-Euro-Ticket is about to end.

Right now, the government has no plan to immediately continue or replace it. Which means, starting in September, travelers will again pay regular fares, and maybe even more. Many transit companies are expected to hike prices because of energy costs.

All of that has left Germany trying to figure out what can, or should, replace the 9-Euro-Ticket. Thousands have signed a petition to keep it. On Twitter, the hashtag #9Euroticketbleibt (basically, “the 9-Euro-Ticket stays”) is perpetually trending. Political parties, advocates, and industry groups have floated different proposals — a 69 euro monthly ticket, a 365 euro yearly ticket, and more. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the 9-Euro-Ticket “one of the best ideas we had,” but the coalition government is also divided on its possible successor.

A rider sits on the U-Bahn in Munich, beneath an advertisement for the 9-Euro-Ticket.
Jen Kirby for Vox

The 9-Euro-Ticket was supposed to give Germans a break on rising energy expenses. It helped do that, but it brought Germany to reckon with what public transport can and should look like, especially in the age of an energy and climate crisis. This three-month experiment could help reshape the country’s transportation infrastructure.

Although it probably will never be quite this cheap again.

This spring, the German coalition government agreed on a series of measures to help ease the financial fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The deal included ways to make travel and transport a little cheaper, including a reduction on gas and diesel tax starting in June. It also created this 9-Euro-Ticket, which would last for three months and allocate money to compensate local and regional transit companies for the lost revenues.

A 9-Euro-Ticket, purchased through Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe.
Jen Kirby for Vox

The 9-Euro-Ticket was cheap, obviously. A monthly ticket in Berlin can ordinarily cost 86 euros or more; in Munich, it depends on which zones you’re traveling to, but can be upward of 150 euros each month.

The 9-Euro-Ticket uncomplicated travel within cities and between them. “The best thing about the ticket that people said was just the simplicity of it,” said Isabel Cademartori, an SPD member of the Bundestag from Mannheim, serving on the Committee on Transport.

The 9-Euro-Ticket meant riders didn’t have to game out complicated fare schemes, figuring out how much to pay depending on how far the travel, or when. People could ride the U-Bahn, and then hop on the local train to a neighboring city, and take the bus around town, all with the same ticket. (High-speed trains weren’t included in the 9-Euro-Ticket.)

That affordability and ease of travel outside of your town or city also meant that a lot of people used the ticket for leisure getaways, according to government officials, advocates, and researchers. Callum, a PhD student from Munich, said that he used it to go on hiking trips. In the small villages and towns he passed through, he said, “they were saying to us all: ‘You traveled out here because of the 9-Euro-Ticket, right?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, definitely.’ So it really seemed to be appreciated by everyone.”

Markus Siewert, managing director of the TUM Think Tank and member of the research team conducting a mobility study in and around Munich, said that they often received emails from people, seniors, or lower-income people, who said that the 9-Euro-Ticket meant they could go on vacation for the first time, or were able to send their children on a school field trip.

But those trips did, at times, test Germany’s transit infrastructure, especially on weekends and holidays. During one of the first big holiday weekends of the ticket in June, overcrowded trains slowed travel, platforms were full, and trains were at capacity. It also put pressure on train and station staff, who had to handle the influx. Some of these problems eased over time, but it also revealed some strains on Germany’s infrastructure.

One of the secondary hopes for the ticket was that it might reduce gasoline consumption, as more people took these trips by train instead of using their cars.

On that question, the results aren’t as clear. One survey, from the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), found that about a quarter of trips made with the 9-Euro-Ticket wouldn’t have been made otherwise. When it came to using public transit instead of a car, the VDV found that only about 3 percent of people surveyed said they took transit instead of driving.

Research from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Munich School of Politics (HfP) think tank, in Munich, also had similar findings, and found a 3 percent decrease in car usage from May to June and the beginning of July.

But those same researchers found that about 35 percent of people in their Munich sample traveled by bus or tram more. About 22 percent of people in that same study used public transit for the first time; about a quarter of them used it four or more days a week. Traffic data from Tomtom also showed that traffic congestion decreased in 23 of 26 cities during the time of the 9-Euro-Ticket.

And that was just in three months. Car owners weren’t going to fully abandon their cars during that period, but it at least gave them an incentive to use public transit. One big question that no one yet has an answer to is whether those less used to taking public transit before the 9-Euro-Ticket might still opt to take it after the program ends. And the other big question is whether a more permanent version of the 9-Euro-Ticket could accelerate or entrench such a transition — but to do, so the investment may need to go beyond a transport subsidy.

“On the long term, if you want to have a transport transition, you have to have not too expensive open transport, and, on the other hand, you should have more and better trains and buses,” said Alexander Kaas Elias, the spokesperson for railway policy for the Greens Faction in Berlin.

Luka Blazic was waiting for the S-Bahn in Munich last week, but, he said, he did not have the 9-Euro-Ticket.

The 25-year-old law student bought the 9-Euro-Ticket in June because he went to school and he had a lot of books, so it was hard to lug them all on his motorcycle. But when he really needed transit, say, after being out at night, it wasn’t readily available. It also wasn’t all that reliable. “If I would have had an important appointment, I wouldn’t want to depend on public transit,” he said. He didn’t buy the pass again in July or August. This August trip was a one-off thing.

The complaints about Munich’s transit are a bit harder to sympathize with if you live, well, in America. But the 9-Euro-Ticket, in sending people back to public transit (or toward it for the the first time), did reveal some weaknesses in Germany’s transit system. It can be confusing, and it also has some big gaps, especially in connections between cities and smaller towns, and within smaller cities, towns, and rural areas.

Bernd Reuther, a Free Democrat Bundestag member from North-Rhine Westphalia, also on the Committee on Transport, said the 9-Euro-Ticket showed that Germany needs to simplify, but also expand and invest in infrastructure, to make it more reliable, so that people can use it in daily life. “If you have a good infrastructure then people will not use the car anymore. I mean, for my best example is the staff in my office. In my office [in Berlin], nobody has a car. In my home office, here in my voting district, everybody comes by car because they have no other chance to get there,” he said.

Many also see that kind of investment as necessary if Germany wants to meet its climate goals in the longer term — beyond the immediate energy crisis. For this, it’s not just about investing in public transit, but also using some sticks to wean people off of cars. Frederic Rudolph, the head of T3 Transportation Think Tank, which advocates for sustainable mobility, especially around bike access, said the incentive to use the 9-Euro-Ticket was blunted somewhat because the German government also increased fuel subsidies around the same time — that is, drivers got a break, too. “It’s not sufficient if you only support alternatives to the car, but you have also to be more restrictive towards the car,” he said.

But any effort to boost public transit ridership and infrastructure will cost money, and that is the big question looming around the 9-Euro-Ticket or its eventual successor. The government has estimated that it would cost 14 billion euros a year to continue the 9-Euro-Ticket, a sum that Finance Minister Christian Lindner, of the Free Democrats, said would take away from other necessary investments. “Nine euros per month isn’t free of charge — it means someone else pays,” Lindner said recently. “Money that then isn’t available for education, for example.”

Lindner’s comments are just one window into the divide on the 9-Euro-Ticket among Germany’s coalition partners, the center-left SPD, the business-friendly Free Democrats, and the pro-environment Greens. Volker Wissing, the minister for Transport, has convened a working group in coordination with Germany’s federal states, which typically run public transit, to come up with proposals, though that isn’t expected until later in the fall.

A pop-up window reads, in part, “Presale for September. The 9-Euro-Ticket expires at the end of this month.”

A sad message.
Jen Kirby for Vox

Some SPD officials have called for a 365 euro annual ticket, which would basically put the cost of daily public transit at 1 euro. The Greens have put forward their own plan for a 29 euro regional monthly ticket, which they argue make up the majority of trips anyway, and a 49 euro monthly country-wide ticket. Industry groups and advocates have also come up with similar proposals for a “Klimaticket” as some have called it, including flex regions — so you don’t pay more if you pass over a border — and other monthly options.

Most officials and even some advocates concede that 9 euros is probably a bit too cheap. But the goal is to find a price tag that feels accessible and worthwhile, no matter the income level or location. And above all else, keeping things simple and lowering the obstacles to access was maybe the most important lesson of the experiment. “The people want a German-wide ticket,” said Tim Alexandrin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.

The people want it, but it doesn’t look as though Germany will come up with a new plan before the 9-Euro-Ticket expires. The success of the ticket proved Germany’s public transit systems can be more accessible and affordable — but it also showed what it might take to get there.

Most Popular

James Earl Jones lets AI take over the voice of Darth Vader

/ James Earl Jones plans to step away from his role as the voice of Darth Vader, but a Ukrainian startup could help...

These earbuds have a case that doubles as a power bank, and they’re just $26

TL;DR: As of Sept. 25, you can get a pair of Flux Earbuds with the Wireless Charging Case(opens in a new tab) for just...

Get a lifetime of documentaries when you get Curiosity Stream for $179

TL;DR: As of Sept. 25, you can get the Curiosity Stream HD Plan: Lifetime Subscription(opens in a new tab) for just $179 instead of...

Make learning to code simpler with this $25 course bundle on Scratch Programming

TL;DR: As of Sept. 25, you can get the 2023 Coding with Scratch Programming Bundle(opens in a new tab) for just $25 instead of...