Germany proposes free public transportation to fight pollution

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And although the Western European country is known for its alternative approaches to sustainable transport, Germany, also known as Europe's 'car nation, ' is looking to make public transportation free across five of its most polluted cities to avoid paying hefty fines for not meeting the European Union's air quality targets.

The idea was set out in a letter, sent to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, and was signed by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt and chancellery chief Peter Altmaier.

German authorities face legal action because of air quality problems in cities.

"In the letter, the authors proposed low emission zones, free public transport to reduce auto use, extra incentives for electric cars, and technical retrofitting for existing vehicles as long as this is effective and economically feasible".

"Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany", the ministers added.

"They said they would test these measures out in 5 cities - Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen, and Mannheim - before rolling out the most successful measures to all other cities affected".

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Germany has been under pressure from the European Commission, which in January promised to get tough on air quality and threatened to penalize members that breached EU rules on pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.

Pollution which can be life-threatening affects more than 130 cities in Europe, according to the European Union commission. To make matters worse, the Commission reports that some 400,000 Europeans die prematurely due to air pollution, costing the global union €20bn euros ($24.7bn) on healthcare.

According to the VDV, nearly half of the money that goes into Germany's municipal public transportation companies comes from ticket sales - $14.8 billion a year.

"I don't know any manufacturer who would be able to deliver the number of electric buses we would need to meet increased demand if transport was free", Bonn mayor Ashok Sridharan told news agency DPA. The authors said they had agreed these measures with Germany's federal states and municipalities, but Helmut Dedy, the head of the Council of German Cities, said he was surprised by the proposal.

But leaders of German cities have warned that more planning is necessary for free travel to succeed.

So far, other trials in the world to offer citizens free travel have failed, for example in the city of Seattle in the US. "The conclusion would be clear", wrote the Die Welt newspaper editorial staff: "more carriages, more personnel, and maybe even more tracks and lines would be needed".