Free city zone in augsburg: exemplary transport

Augsburg has transformed its public transport system in such a way that the model serves as a model for other municipalities. An expensive gift for the citizens.

Walter Casazza, head of Augsburg’s public utility company, developed the City-Zone Photo: Dominik Baur

The turn of the times is attracting only discreet attention in Augsburg. "Free City-Zone" is written on a sheet of A4 paper wrapped in foil on one of the pillars of the bus stop at the Konigsplatz traffic junction. There also hangs an overview map with all stops of the new free zone. On the streetcars, small green squares indicate "100% green electricity," and on the buses are slogans such as "Emission: impossible. CO2-neutral thanks to 100% biogas" or "Please drive on! There’s nothing to smell here".

With the free City-Zone, Augsburg and the local transport association AVV gave its citizens and visitors an 860,000 euro gift at the beginning of the year. The zone covers nine of 281 stops. Distances of up to three stops can now be covered free of charge by bus or streetcar in the innermost part of the city center – for example from the main train station to Ulrichplatz or from Theodor-Heuss-Platz to the State Theater.

A milestone on the way to the future of public transport? Or just a bit of advertising for the city?

"With the City Zone, we are taking an important step toward keeping the air in Augsburg clean," said Eva Weber at the launch. Parking search traffic will be reduced, the city center will be made more attractive for visitors and the retail trade will be strengthened. She has to say it all. The CSU woman is in the middle of the election campaign. She is still the second mayor, but on the 15th of March, she will be the mayor. March, she wants to become mayor.

Walter Casazza also praises the new zone as a "sympathetic invitation to all hard-core drivers to use public transport for a change. The city zone is also attractive for tourists, he says, who can now travel free of charge from the main train station to the city center. And many passengers traveling to the city center could now use the cheaper short-haul route, because they wouldn’t have to count the last one or two stops on their trip. Casazza is the head of Augsburg’s public utility company, and the City-Zone is his baby. He copied the idea from the people of Graz, who have been taking the streetcar through the city center for free for years. What effect the City-Zone actually has, he says, can only be said after long-term observation. "But of course I hope that passenger numbers will increase," says Casazza.

For now, he’s looking for a parking space. Casazza sits in a BMW i3. Electrically and silently, he drives through downtown Augsburg. "There are no parking spaces here," he says matter-of-factly. Sure, that’s the demonstration effect. "Get in now, park anywhere," it says on the car door. But of course Casazza doesn’t want to demonstrate the advantages of driving a car in the city anyway, he wants to show off another special feature in Augsburg. Because here, the municipal utility has set up its own car-sharing service. And since November, they have been offering a so-called Mobil-Flat. It includes the use of buses, streetcars, rental bikes and carsharing cars. "Then let’s go in the direction of Rosenaustrabe. There we can get on line three."

A car-free city is not possible. Is it?

Shortly before the morning jaunt, Casazza spent tea and buttered pretzels in an unadorned conference room at the municipal utility explaining what makes Augsburg’s public transportation system so special. From the sixth floor here, Casazza looks out over the city.

His father was a streetcar driver, says the 57-year-old man from Tyrol. Grandfather and uncle were on the railroad, he says. "When I was a little boy, I was allowed to ride the reversing loop on my father’s lap. With a hand crank. That was the greatest thing, of course. And maybe it influenced the rest of my life." Casazza has been in Augsburg since 2014; before that, he managed the transport company in Karlsruhe. "We want to put people in the city in a position where they don’t need their own car," says Casazza. "A combination of streetcars and buses on the one hand and rental bikes and car sharing on the other is a good answer." The backbone, however, is always the efficient public transport system.

A car-free city will not be possible because there are too many commuters who find it very difficult to use public transport. Therefore, there will always be a mix of individual and public transport. "But I would like to move the slider in the direction of public transport. Many people won’t completely give up their own car, but perhaps their second or third car."

In terms of Mobilflat, Stadtwerke had a head start, as it had already begun to develop its own car-sharing service years ago, entirely without partners. The fleet currently consists of 200 vehicles, and is expected to reach 250 by the end of the year. 2,500 customers use the service intensively. "Each of our car-sharing vehicles is on the road for an average of eight hours a day," Casazza says. "The private car, on the other hand, is more of a standing vehicle." He adds that they also provide rental bikes to customers.

"So the idea was obvious to combine these three products so that people can choose the most suitable means of transport for each of their journeys, the Minicooper convertible for a trip to Lake Ammersee, for example, the bicycle for running small errands in their own part of town, and the streetcar for the journey to work."

The Mobilflat is available in two versions: for euros, depending on how high the booked hourly or kilometer quota is. This is then supplemented by free use of the public transport system and rental bikes, which can be used for any number of journeys of up to 30 minutes. E-bikes are also to be loaned out in the course of the year. In three months, 300 customers have already opted for the all-inclusive offer.

The streetcar runs every five minutes during peak hours. The streetcars run on green electricity, the 90 articulated buses on climate-neutral biomethane. "That’s something outstanding," says Stadtwerke boss Casazza. So is the free wi-fi in all vehicles and at key stops. "With the fleet, the City Zone and the Mobilflat, we are certainly still unique nationwide," says Casazza.

Is the revolution just fake?

Jorg Schiffler from the German Transport Club (VCD) in Augsburg is less positive about the offer. He says the City Zone is primarily a half-hearted effort to make up a little for the damage caused by a controversial 2018 fare reform. Before that, he says, people were able to ride at half price throughout the city center and, in some cases, beyond.

Schiffler is also skeptical about the expansion of car sharing. He fears that the use of rental cars will lead to people abandoning bicycles. Schiffler also likes the five-minute streetcar service, but he says it used to be available all day long. Now it has been restricted to the rush hour. In addition, there are often long delays due to the high volume of traffic.

The fact that a streetcar gets stuck in a traffic jam is unacceptable and could be prevented by special lanes and traffic light regulations. And an emission-free bus fleet would be "okay," but it would be more important to expand the streetcar network, since the streetcar is much more ecological.

Markus Buchler is more willing to look on the bright side. "After all, the people of Augsburg are so innovative that they have created something that everyone is now talking about," says the spokesman for mobility for the Green Party’s parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament. The city is definitely treading an interesting path.

"After all, we have to consider throughout Bavaria: How do we get out of the entrenched structures? How can public transport be made more attractive?" The Green therefore finds the new city zone "absolutely gratifying." It is certainly not the final solution, but it can work as an incentive.

The problem is not the city, but the surrounding area

Buchler also praises the Mobilflat, saying that car sharing is a good way to lure people away from their own cars, especially in the city’s surrounding areas. People who know that they can fall back on a loaner car if the worst comes to the worst will also find it easier to switch to public transportation.

However, Buchler still sees a great need for action, especially in Augsburg’s surrounding areas. "If we want to shift traffic, we have to do it there and less in the center. Because in the city-surrounding area we have the highest growth rates in traffic volume."

That’s why, he says, public transport in the surrounding areas must be significantly expanded, the frequency increased and more cross connections created, and then a simple and inexpensive fare system introduced. Markus Buchler thinks that the district of Munich is setting an example. Augsburg could also cut off a slice.