Olaf Schultz the German Chancellor has a problem. As part of their energy relief program the Government introduced a public transport discount. For €9 people could buy a pass for unlimited travel for a month on public transport. It has proved to be an outstanding success. Over one third of the population has used the passes. Railway stations have faced massive congestion. People who do not use bus or trams have been buying the pass. The pass has generated trips. Its ability to shift people from cars is more debateable. The three months deal ends on Wednesday and Schultz is debating whether to extend the very expensive subsidy.
There are lots of pressures on policy makers when it comes to cars in cities. The green movement and the pressure of air standards is already having an effect. Will an increasing proportion of older people provide the tipping point for change? Over half of ninety years old in Denmark and the USA are living an independent life. Unfortunately many of them feel they are no longer safe to drive. To maintain mobility, when people can no longer drive, is a growing problem. It will become much bigger as the number of Fourth Agers grows in the next thirty years.
The availability of public transport must increase. Of course, this is far easier for countries such as Germany than others. One of the reasons for the success of the 9€ pass has been the quality of public transport. To achieve this requires a long-term plan. Transport and building planning must integrate.
Public transport usage is five times higher in Germany. Hence the popularity of the subsidy. Since 1970 usage has been declining in the USA but growing in Germany. The public transport system in Germany is virtually self-sustaining. It requires a subsidy of only eighteen percent of fares. The USA is subsidizing public transport to a massive sixty five percent. Despite its love affair with cars Germany is resisting a global pressure towards cars dominating transport.
Cars are a seductive form of transport and consumers find them extremely attractive. The result is that all over the world as soon as incomes rise car ownership rockets. The problem is that cars also can drive out other forms of transportation, if they are permitted to do so. Cars are the major source of accidents for pedestrians and cyclists. This discourages these forms of transport. Congestion caused by cars, slows buses and other forms of public transport. They are thus less attractive. Cars also encourage low density, sprawling city developments. Public transport finds it difficult to serve such developments efficiently and effectively. At the same time the distance between different locations discourages walking and cycling.
The impact on Germany and the US of an expanding Fourth Age group is very different. Increasing reliance on public transport and walking have differential impacts. Germany is in a much better place than the US. This is not a result of short-run action but a concerted policy initiative. This included everything from the cost of motoring, the ease of access to city centres and the availability of car parking. The quality of public transport and urban planning was thought through. The initiative started over forty years ago. For example, the cost of running two identical cars is fifty percent higher in Germany than the USA. The vast majority of this is the taxation of gasoline. Most German motorways never enter the city centres. There are other road use restrictions. As a result, city average speeds in the USA are one quarter higher than Germany.
Many Germany city centres are pedestrianized. This makes it quicker and more efficient for walkers and cyclists. Car usage is a lot less efficient. Family zones in the cities have speed restrictions of only 7 kilometres or four miles per hour. Up to eighty percent of all city roads are restricted to 30 kilometres or eighteen miles per hour. It is difficult for cars to cross from one side of a city to the other. Policy makers have forced the cars on to the motorway ring roads with dead-end streets and other restrictions.
In the last forty years German city planning has deliberately created compact cities. The average population density in cities and towns is three times higher in Germany than the US. They are oriented along major light railway and tram routes. Public transport has consistently been upgraded. It includes running light railways and trams in separate lanes. Because of this they are more and effective. Public transport is well integrated allowing easy changes from tram to train or bus to tram. Today Germany cities average six times as much public transport compared to the US.
Will the ageing population force a change in the very nature of urban America and many other parts of the world? According to the World Health Organization the number of Americans over 80 will increase by two and a half times by 2050. It will reach over 30m. Will it force planners to concentrate growth? Will it halt the sprawl? Will technology in the form of the autonomous car come to the “rescue”? Perhaps access to the consumer experiences of the suburbs will be restricted. Will it only be available to the affluent Fourth Agers who can use Uber for their journeys? If so, the malls will suffer as they miss out on the only growth market in town.