Which European countries have the cheapest and most accessible public transport?

A new ranking has rated different European countries and capital cities on the cost, simplicity and accessibility of their public transport.

A new Greenpeace report has revealed the state of public transport across 30 European countries.

The campaign group ranked nations based on four criteria: the simplicity of their ticketing systems, affordability of long-term tickets, discounts for socially disadvantaged groups and VAT rates. The report also looked at individual capital cities, rating them based on the same categories.

Each capital and country was assigned a score out of a possible 100 points.

Luxembourg, Malta, Austria, Germany, Cyprus and Spain came out on top with high scores for easy-to-use tickets and discounts. Tallinn in Estonia, Luxembourg and Valletta in Malta came in the first three spots for the city ranking.

Greece, Croatia and Bulgaria were at the bottom of the country list with Bulgaria scoring no points in any of the four categories.

When it comes to individual cities, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, London in the UK and Dublin in Ireland scored the worst for cost and accessibility.

Where in Europe does public transport cost the least and most?

The cities with the cheapest monthly or annual tickets right now are Prague, Bratislava, Rome and Vienna. In these places, the cost is around €0.85 or less per day after the price level adjustment.

Madrid also makes the list but only temporarily with its 60 per cent discount on monthly tickets running until 30 June this year. Spain has also made regional and commuter trains free for frequent users until the end of 2023 though there are some restrictions including a maximum of four trips a day.

The most expensive cities in Europe were London, Dublin, Paris and Amsterdam. Tickets here will cost you more than €2.25 per day.

Can free public transport convince people not to use their cars?

“We don’t explicitly advocate for free transport,” says Herwig Schuster, transport expert for Greenpeace’s Mobility for All campaign.

“We always say that transport should be affordable but not free. It’s okay if this is done in Luxembourg which is a super rich country.”

Instead, it is easier and fairer for most countries to aim for somewhere around €1 a day.

But there are still some outliers like Luxembourg on the list.

Tallinn was one of the first cities to make public transport free for residents in 2013 and it has led to a 1.2 per cent increase in demand since it was introduced.

Luxembourg was then the first European country to make tickets free for commuters and foreign tourists alike. It has failed to encourage people to switch away from cars, though.

Greenpeace notes that this is probably because more than 200,000 commute in and out of Luxembourg meaning they’d still need to buy a ticket for a neighbouring country.

“People typically go from Germany to Luxembourg, from Belgium to Luxembourg and still use the car because it’s not really helpful if they don’t pay for the Luxembourg section,” Schuster says.

In 2022, Malta became the second EU country to make public transport permanently free. But it doesn’t include all forms of transport – express bus lines and ferries are excluded.

Public transport users still need to show a ‘Tallinja ticket card’ which allows free travel after a one-off registration for a €15 fee. It means Malta’s affordable public transport is less accessible for non-residents.

What will encourage more people to use public transport?

Greenpeace says reducing the cost of public transport is one of the “easiest and quickest” ways to shift people from cars to trains and buses. It could also help to combat the cost of living crisis and growing transport poverty.

But the cost of public transport needs to be lower than that of running a car and worth the price or people won’t use it. The report notes that many countries and cities have made public transport cheaper in recent weeks, months and years but there’s still work to be done.

“From the short-term perspective, funding is an issue in most of the countries,” says Schuster.

“If you make public transport cheaper, then of course that has to be covered by the taxpayer – at least in the short term.”

There is “huge potential”, however, to shift money from fossil fuel subsidies or introduce taxes on airline tickets and kerosene to pay for the reduced ticket prices, Schuster adds. One of the easiest ways to cut the cost would be removing VAT, with some Eastern European countries having rates as high as 20 per cent.

“Over a couple of years, I think all governments could be able to introduce that kind of fair pricing.”

Making systems easier to navigate with simple ticketing systems is also important. Schuster says that electronic cards that can be used everywhere – like those in the Netherlands – are a good solution. Especially when compared to Bulgaria where you might need several tickets for a bus or to change trains.

Combining low cost, good infrastructure and a simple-to-understand ticketing system could be the best way to encourage more people to use public transport.

What is a ‘climate ticket’ and could it be the answer?

Several progressive countries and cities have set a Europe-wide trend towards something called a ‘climate ticket’, according to Greenpeace.

“Our definition of a climate ticket is a public transport ticket which is valid for all or most means of public transport…for a certain period,” Schuster explains.

Three of the 30 countries – Austria, Hungary and Germany – have so far introduced these kinds of relatively affordable tickets that can be used nationwide.

“I think the only model that is quite close to our [recommendation] is the Austrian model because the Austrian climate ticket covers all means of transport. So you can use the pass in the countryside as well as on the underground in Vienna,” says Schuster.

Greenpeace is calling for all European countries that haven’t yet reduced the cost of public transport to introduce a climate ticket. Those that have already introduced these kinds of passes also need to improve them.

The analysis shows the ideal ‘climate ticket’ doesn’t yet exist in Europe. But there are some interesting initiatives that could be improved and applied elsewhere.

For example, Schuster says that while the Austrian model is good, it is too expensive. The Deutschlandticket is cheaper but it isn’t valid on some city transport networks.

Cross-border ticketing, like in Luxembourg, is also an issue in Europe. If people have to buy two national public transport passes to travel just 30km, it doesn’t make a system like this useful. Confusing and varied discounts for socially disadvantaged groups can also make travelling across the continent difficult.

“That needs to change and I think that’s something that the European Commission can take over and start a process to make that easier,” Schuster concludes.

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