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Germany aims to offset living costs and gas demand with discounted public transport

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This summer, you can travel around Germany on nearly every form of public transportation for less than $10 a month. The discount is part of a government package that aims to tackle the soaring cost of living and persuade Germans to save gas by using more public transportation. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz hit the rails to find out if it's working.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Speaking German).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Berlin's Alexanderplatz station is filled with passengers on this late spring day, many of them holding the so-called 9-Euro-Ticket.

MATIUS NOVAK: To be honest, I found out about this ticket, like, two days ago. Yeah. And it seems to be very cheap comparing to other prices.

SCHMITZ: Matius Novak is visiting from Breslau, Poland, where he says the price of everything is skyrocketing thanks to an influx of refugees.

NOVAK: It's practically impossible to find apartment because there are so many people from Ukraine. They are looking for a place to stay with whole families. So the gas prices are very high. You can see the impact almost everywhere.

SCHMITZ: Novak is on his way to Hamburg for work. He drives a bus for rock bands on their European tours. He squats next to his backpack, his tattooed hands holding an itinerary of where his 9-Euro pass will take him today.

NOVAK: It's says that I will be there at 3:38 today, and I will start at 11:16.

SCHMITZ: OK. So you're looking at 4 1/2 hours, right?

NOVAK: Yeah. Yeah.

SCHMITZ: On a train where you spend a little more money - a lot more money, actually. It would probably be two hours. Is that extra time worth it?

NOVAK: Yes. I don't have to be there so quick. So, yeah, this option is the best for me.

SCHMITZ: It's the best option for many people, says Stefan Gelbhaar, a lawmaker from Germany's Green Party.

STEFAN GELBHAAR: (Through interpreter) So far, 16 million 9-Euro-Tickets have been sold in the first two weeks. If you add annual subscription holders, a third of Germany has already taken up this offer.

SCHMITZ: Germany's government, which includes the Green Party, has promised to compensate public transportation companies 2.5 billion euros for this scheme. He says the idea for the ticket came when some in the government suggested subsidies to trim the price of gas for German drivers.

GELBHAAR: (Through interpreter) We insisted subsidies shouldn't just benefit drivers but also people who use public bus and rail. And we're interested in what impact this cheaper ticket will have on passenger behavior.

SCHMITZ: Passenger behavior on a regional train from Berlin to Magdeburg a couple hours away depends on whether you've managed to nab a seat or not. After a mad scramble on the platform, many passengers on this train are left standing.

So we've been on the train for 10 minutes, and nearly every available space in this train is occupied, including the stairway where people are sitting. And people are standing in the doorway area as well. And the ride just started.

Scenes like this are why rail expert and economist Christian Bottger thinks the 9-Euro-Ticket is a bad idea. He points to stories this month where some trains have been so crowded that police asked hundreds of passengers to get off the train and get on the next one.

CHRISTIAN BOTTGER: It's very hard. And, I mean, it's very unpleasant because no one wants to leave a train if, you know, the next train will be there in an hour possibly and it will be as crowded this one. Why should you leave that?

SCHMITZ: Bottger says German trains are already crowded and this new ticket will just make it worse, making for unpleasant experiences for people who may likely be turned off from trains for good.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Back at Alexanderplatz station, train passenger Katja Vonhagen says after the 9-Euro pass expires at the end of August, she expects many people will return to their cars.

KATJA VONHAGEN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Public transportation is just too expensive, she says, just like everything else these days. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.