Current transport policy puts people with low income at a disadvantage

Environmentally friendly turnaround in transport can reduce social inequalities

Ein Fahrradfahrer in einem Stau mit AutosClick to enlarge
A successful traffic turnaround requires changes in mobility behaviour
Source: Kara /

Today's transportation system in Germany shows numerous social injustices, says a position paper by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). Low-income households in particular are disadvantaged, for example because they more frequently live on roads with higher traffic volumes and thus higher noise and air pollution levels - even though they often do not drive. Dirk Messner, President of UBA said, "Households with low incomes, children, the elderly, women and people without cars – especially in rural areas – are the losers of today's transport system. With a change in transport towards more ecological mobility, we are closing this justice gap and protecting the environment and climate".

The new UBA paper "Verkehrswende für Alle" (Transport Turnaround for All) provides an overview of the justice gaps in mobility. It shows that the German transport system is in urgent need of reform, both from an ecological but and a social point of view. Low-income households are disproportionately affected by environmental and health impacts. High-income households, on the other hand, produce significantly more greenhouse gases and other environmental pollution per capita through their mobility than the average household. Yet they pay only a small proportion of the environmental costs incurred. In addition, richer households benefit disproportionately from environmentally harmful subsidies such as the company car privilege and the tax write-off for commuters. Mr Messner said, "The company car privilege is a particularly obvious case of social injustice. Only a small, usually privileged part of the population benefits from it, while the costs are borne by all taxpayers.”

Cars take up most of the public road space. This also favours households with high incomes in particular, as they more often own cars and use them to a greater extent. In contrast, there is little space for pedestrian traffic. This is mainly at the expense of children, people on low incomes, elderly people and women. These groups in particular are more likely to walk and therefore suffer more from unattractive conditions for walking. Dirk Messner said, "The cost of traveling by bus and train also rose more than twice as much as the cost of driving between 2000 and 2018. This further increases the injustice between the modes of transport and penalizes especially those who adopt environmentally friendly behaviour.” Since the turn of the millennium, the cost of purchasing and maintaining a car has risen by around 36 percent, while public transport prices have risen by almost 80 percent.

Dirk Messner said, “With a shift in traffic towards more walking, cycling and public transport, our mobility can become more socially and ecologically just. It will give people more space to live and thus improve their quality of life. Fewer cars on the roads and in parking places creates space that can be better used for living, recreation and environmentally friendly mobility". UBA recommends a long-term target of about 150 cars per 1000 inhabitants in large cities. By way of comparison, there are currently around 335 cars per 1,000 inhabitants on the roads in Berlin, around 503 in Munich and an average of 575 in Germany as a whole.

The turnaround will cost money, for example the expansion of public transport or foot and cycle paths. Enormous financial resources could be freed up simply by reducing environmentally harmful transport subsidies. The tax break for regular commuters, the energy tax rebate on diesel fuel and the company car privilege cost German taxpayers more than 15 billion euros every year. These subsidies not only harm the environment and the climate, but are also unfair from a social point of view since households with high incomes benefit from them to a greater extent than average. In addition, the more the state favours fossil motorised private transport through subsidies, the more intensively it must grant subsidies in return to make the switch to more environmentally friendly means of transport more attractive. In other words, taxpayers bear a double burden. The funds freed up by the reduction of subsidies would also make it possible to improve the provision of public transport in rural regions.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau


UBA-Präsident Dirk Messner zur Verkehrswende für ALLE