In a bid to tackle air pollution in some of its most important cities, including the capital Berlin, the German government wants to make all public transit free.

Berlin bus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Berlin bus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Germany and eight other fellow EU states risk legal action at the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest tribunal, for failing to meet EU limits on nitrogen dioxide and fine particles. Germany missed a January 31 deadline for complying with these guidelines, which was extended by the EU’s Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella.

The EU takes air pollution very seriously, which causes 400,000 preventable deaths and incurs $24.7 billion in health spending per year in the bloc.

In a letter to Commissioner Vella, three German ministers, including Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, wrote that they are “considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars.”

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This proposal will be tested in a pilot program by “the end of this year at the latest” in five cities across western Germany: Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen, and Mannheim.

This surprising plan comes to light just two years after Volkswagen, a German can manufacturer, was dragged into the so-called “dieselgate” scandal. At the time, experts proved that Volkswagen was cheating emission ratings by purposely using software that toned down emission readings. At the same time, Germany is by some distance Europe’s leading production and sales market of automobiles.

In light of all this, it is even more commendable that the German government wants to prioritize its citizen’s health over industry interests. In fact, Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler — all German automakers that have been caught up in the dieselgate scandal — agreed to pay €250 million ($310 million) for a billion-euro fund meant to upgrade local transport.

Public transport is already very popular in Germany with over 10.3 billion journeys clocked in over the past 20 years. Public transit is also much cheaper than in many other Western EU countries; for instance, a single ticket in Berlin costs €2.90 ($3.60) while the equivalent on the London Tube costs €5.50 ($6.80).

It’s unclear how a country-wide rule for free public transit would pan out in Germany. Most local public transport in Germany is owned by municipalities, so the federal government would have to take on the burden of financing all of the country’s public transit. What’s certain is that it will take a number of years of planning and acquisitions before this can happen. For instance, the government would have to buy thousands of extra electric buses to serve the expect heightened demand.