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Haggling for billions: On the question of the importance of the car for mobility in Germany, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (left) and Finance Minister Christian Lindner are not far apart.

Photo: Markus Schreiber / AP

The battle for the distribution of billions in taxpayers' money is entering its decisive phase this week: On Thursday, the Budget Committee will again discuss the controversial points in its "adjustment meeting". After four days of deliberations in the Bundestag, the plan is to vote on the 1 federal budget on 2024 December. One of the most controversial individual items is the transport budget: how much money should flow into roads, railways, cycle paths and footpaths as well as public transport?

The weighting of state funds and the funding mix are crucial for the desired transport turnaround and the achievement of climate protection goals in Germany. It is indisputable that there is a need for action there. Germany will not achieve its 2030 climate target, the Federal Government's Council of Experts judged at the end of August. Even taking into account the 130 measures devised by the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will not succeed, the 72-page statement said. And the experts gave a particularly bad report to the transport sector, whose share of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions in Germany is now one-fifth, according to the Federal Environment Agency. Even in the report's optimistic scenario, the transport sector will miss its climate target by a significant 187 million tonnes (cumulative by 2030) of CO2 equivalent.

These sector targets are to be relaxed even further in the future. A controversial amendment to the Climate Protection Act is intended to remove the responsibility of the individual sectors to meet their individual targets in the future. If, for example, the transport sector exceeds its annual emissions budget, other sectors such as energy or agriculture should be able to compensate for it. The obligation to take countermeasures with an immediate programme is also to be abolished. At a hearing of the Bundestag's Climate Protection and Energy Committee a few days ago, experts therefore sharply criticized the amendment. The German Association of Energy and Water Industries, for example, as well as the environmental organisation German Watch, clearly spoke out against a softening of the sector's targets. A lack of strategy in the transport and building sectors, which had already failed to achieve their goals in the past, would be "grossly negligent", according to German Watch.

The government and ministry reject the suspicion that Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (53, FDP) would rather rely on the reduction efforts of the other ministries. The priorities can now be pinned down to the dispute over the new transport budget.

Of the total planned 446 billion euros in total expenditure in the draft budget, Wissing traditionally has the largest block for investment of all ministries. He also had to cut back compared to the previous year. However, thanks to the billions in revenue from the new truck toll that will come into force in 2024, which is intended to encourage haulage companies and companies to switch to emission-free heavy-duty trucks and vans, the ministry's budget is expected to rise to 38.7 billion euros. That would be a good three billion euros more than in 2023.

Cycling: Investments almost halved by 2024

However, if you listen to mobility experts or representatives of the bicycle lobby, you get the impression that there is a lack of coordination and also a spirit of optimism. A lot of money would flow into projects for the benefit of car traffic, while funding for climate-friendly mobility projects would be cut elsewhere. For example, in the course of new traffic laws, the coalition is giving priority to around 138 motorway projects because of an "overriding public interest".

In fact, Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner (44, FDP), in coordination with his department and party colleague Wissing, wants to further slash the funds for the expansion of cycling for 2024 to 400 million euros, in 2022 it was still 750 million euros. "This is the opposite of the future-oriented financial policy announced by the Ministry of Finance for a modern transport system," criticizes Wasilis von Rauch, Managing Director of "Future Bicycle". The traffic light does not achieve its climate targets, but halves the funding for the most climate-friendly means of transport - a "hammer", also complains the General German Bicycle Club (ADFC) and calls on the members of the Bundestag not to let the "wrong priorities in the transport budget" pass in the planned vote on 1 December.

The Ecological Transport Club Germany argues in the same direction. In order to achieve the goal set out in the National Cycling Plan of doubling the number of kilometres cycled in Germany by 2030, at least one billion euros are needed annually. This sum has already been demanded by the transport ministers of the federal states if Germany is to become a "cycling country" by 2030, as announced.

Further funding for cargo bikes uncertain

The planned investments remain timid. For example, in order to relieve city centres of conventional delivery traffic, the government is promoting the purchase of electric cargo bikes in industry, trade, commerce and municipalities. The federal government is adding up to 2500,4 euros, and by mid-November, the responsible Federal Office of Economics and Export Control had paid out around 8.3320 million euros for about 2024,<> electric cargo bikes and cargo trailers. The program will run until the end of February <>.

In the summer, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy stated in response to an inquiry from manager magazin that the funding programme would be continued beyond this date. Apparently, this is no longer certain. In response to a renewed inquiry, the ministry now spoke of a "possible continuation of the promotion of e-cargo bikes within the framework of the National Climate Initiative".

Car instead of train: Germany still far behind

The largest items in the budget are earmarked for the construction and operation of federal highways (around 12.8 billion euros) – and for the renovation of Deutsche Bahn's dilapidated rail network (around 16 billion euros, including a possible four billion from the climate fund). Deutsche Bahn CEO Richard Lutz (59), who is in contact with Minister Wissing about once a week, is getting significantly more than in previous years and is to tackle a project that both call "general renovation".

No one disputes the need for neglected investment in the railways. Between 1995 and 2018, Germany ranked twelfth in Europe in terms of per capita investment in rail infrastructure, according to a study presented in autumn by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy on behalf of Greenpeace. Cumulatively, the state invested about twice as much money (278 billion euros) in the road network as in the railways (132 billion euros). Between 2018 and 2021, the ratio improved only slightly in favour of rail – while other countries such as Italy, France and the United Kingdom reversed their priorities and put more into rail.

In absolute terms, Germany is also lagging behind. According to the "Pro-Rail Alliance" for the past year, per capita investments of 114 euros are still far behind Luxembourg (575 euros), Switzerland (450) or the Czech Republic (171). "The daily reports of delayed trains and cancellations are only the translation of this lack of investment," says mobility expert Stefan Carsten.

Free buses and trains as a lever for the transport turnaround

The expert also sees Germany being left behind in the transport turnaround for other reasons – subsidies are an important indicator of this. Taxpayers in Germany, for example, subsidize the automotive system to the tune of around 17 billion euros per year – just for diesel subsidies, commuting allowances, the promotion of biofuels and the unlimited tax deductibility of company cars. This "company car privilege" not only costs the taxpayer billions, but also ensures more heavy, large-volume cars on Germany's roads. "The introduction of free public transport for all citizens would cost the state between 12 and 15 billion euros per year," says the mobility researcher.

Free public transport is no longer a utopia. The small EU states of Malta and Luxembourg, often highlighted for their nationwide free public transport, have already found imitators at local or regional level. In Germany, too, a handful of cities are already experimenting with free public transport – albeit to varying degrees; in Erlangen, for example, a three-year pilot project will start on 1 January.

The evaluation of the experiments and thus the question of whether the offers actually contribute to less car traffic in the city is still pending, reports the "Tagesspiegel" . However, it is already clear that free public transport in itself is no guarantee of success for a transport turnaround: In the Estonian capital Tallinn, where public transport has been free for a good decade, the proportion of commuters by car has even increased in recent years.

In Germany, citizens can travel by regional train, S-Bahn and bus for 49 euros per month. The federal and state governments are funding the Deutschlandticket with a total of around three billion euros, but further funding beyond next spring is still open. So it's quite possible that the ticket will be more expensive.

However, the instrument does not have the hoped-for impetus for climate targets. Measured against the actual CO2 savings, critics already consider it to be far too expensive. The ticket could only become a real CO2 killer and a significant contribution to the transport turnaround if it forced the switch from cars to buses and trains. As a result, the state's billions are not being used efficiently.