Illustration: Craig Stephens
Chee Yik-wai
Chee Yik-wai

How free public transport can help Asian countries tackle climate change and inequality

  • Some countries are embracing free or nearly-free public transport in an effort to reach their climate goals and fight inflation
  • While this is not a panacea, it offers a way for Asia to address environmental issues and traffic congestion that slows economic growth
Free or nearly-free monthly public transport throughout an entire country sounds too good to be true and, in Asia, it is almost unthinkable. In Europe, however, this solution is being increasingly embraced and could be a new normal to reach climate goals and fight historic levels of inflation.

To ease people’s financial burden, typically bureaucratic Germany recently introduced one of its boldest experiments with lightning speed. It offered a €9 (US$9) monthly transport pass for local and regional public transport across the nation for anyone, including international tourists, from June to August. Spain is following suit with its own public transport discount making some rail journeys free until the end of the year.

The Association of German Transport Companies estimated that 52 million such tickets were sold, and I was among the buyers in August. This number does not include the 10 million season-ticket holders who were automatically granted one. An estimated 1 billion journeys were made monthly using the pass.

Coming with a hefty price tag of €2.5 billion, this has turned out to be one of the German government’s most popular policy decisions. German public opinion points to overwhelming support for its continuation.

Assuming the estimates are accurate, about 10 per cent of buyers used the pass to drop at least one of their daily car trips, which reduced petrol expenses. Some say it temporarily helped reduce Germany’s inflation rate in June and July. It also reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 million tonnes during the three months of the programme.


‘Zombie’ trains in Jakarta aim to attract young people to public transportation

‘Zombie’ trains in Jakarta aim to attract young people to public transportation
This is roughly equivalent to emissions from powering 350,000 homes for an entire year or the expected savings from imposing a speed limit on the autobahn for one year. Perhaps more significantly, it enabled many people, especially those in lower-income groups, to enjoy affordable public transport to travel further afield, to places that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Is it feasible for Asian countries to replicate this countrywide solution? As much as I would like to jump on the bandwagon after experiencing Germany’s success and say yes, the reality is more complicated. It is important to understand the public transport access rate and user penetration rates in different countries.

Despite some criticism over its public transport reliability, Germany is still known for having one of the most comprehensive networks in the world, with more than 90 per cent of its population having access to public transport in 2020. The figure for the capital Berlin is 99.5 per cent. However, its user penetration rate this year is only 54.9 per cent, so hopefully the €9 ticket experiment has helped foster a behavioural change by convincing people to ditch their cars for more public transport rides.

By contrast, Hong Kong – which is known for its superior transport network access – has a public transport user penetration rate of 83.2 per cent. For mainland China, universal public transport accessibility is challenging, given the country’s sheer size and diverse geographical landscapes. Even so, Beijing has laid out ambitious and expansive plans to improve things.


Final stretch of railway completed on loop around China’s largest desert

Final stretch of railway completed on loop around China’s largest desert
Even Japan, which is famous for its top-quality public transport network and punctuality compared to its German counterpart, only has a 67.4 per cent user penetration rate, lower than that of Hong Kong.

In my native Malaysia, our 100 ringgit (US$22) unlimited public transport monthly pass for the Greater Kuala Lumpur region, in operation since 2019, is the closest to the German €9 experiment in the region. The Malaysian government aims to achieve 40 per cent public transport usage by 2030.

However, the transport network is still marred with huge inefficiencies, including poor network coverage and a user penetration rate of around 33 per cent. It also does not cover the entire country, despite strong demand to avoid using a car for intercity journeys.

The German experiment has shown some downsides too, of course. Some people, including me, were not allowed to board trains because of overcrowding. German railway companies struggled to deal with the large spike in passenger numbers, especially during the peak summer travel period, because of a severe lack of staffing. Since the programme was only intended to last three months, it made no sense for them to go on a hiring spree to adequately prepare for it.

What Malaysia’s MRT has to learn from Indonesia’s BRT

There are cities that have introduced free public transport, and Luxembourg’s entire national public transport network is free, but they have yet to see meaningful drops in car rides despite experiencing ridership increases. In other words, what worked for Germany might not necessarily work for Asian countries in search of climate-friendly results.

However, the €9 experiment does provide important insights into how increased ridership can shape societies. It might not solve both environmental and wealth inequality issues, but alleviating just one of the problems would still be a success and a popular decision, helping politicians improve their public approval ratings while also doing some good.
A future in which more electric vehicles are on the roads to offset carbon emissions still means more vehicles taking up space – even if they are less damaging to the environment – which means traffic congestion issues in cities will persist. It also limits the mobility of those who do not drive.
Countries in Asia need to embark on our own €9 ticket journey. For a start, an affordable price for unlimited public transport use, improving network infrastructure and ensuring adequate staffing for increased ridership could help alleviate the notorious congestion issues that hinder economic growth in Asia. That will be one step in the right direction.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of Crowdsukan focusing on sport diplomacy for peace and development