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Public transport in transition

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Local public transport will play a key role in the transport transition – restructuring it is linked to diverse needs and challenges.

Public transport is taking on an increasingly important role. © Julia Joppien -unsplash.com

Public transport is taking on an increasingly important role. © Julia Joppien -unsplash.com

An interview with Ingo Wortmann, President of the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) and Chairman of the Board of MVG, the local public transport provider for Munich.

Local public transport will play a key role in the transport transition – restructuring it is linked to diverse needs and challenges.

Mr Wortmann, the new Federal Government wants to protect the climate and promote buses and trains.

Yes, there’s lots to do – and not just because of the new government.

We’re in a better starting position than ever before. Do you agree with that statement?

As an engineer, I prefer to orient myself around facts. Let’s take the latest “commuter survey” produced by the German Federal Statistical Office. Among other things, it asks how the roughly 40 million people in employment in our country get to work each day. The findings are sobering: Despite all the indisputable progress in buses and trains, the car is the preferred form of transport for travelling to work. Two-thirds of respondents say that they drive to their company or workplace – even on short journeys. A good 13% use local public transport – buses, trams, the underground or trains – to get to work. Even fewer hop on a bike: Only one in ten people in employment regularly cycle to work. Pedestrian commuters make up the smallest group. Of course, you have to put the findings in the right context. The whole picture looks somewhat better if you consider only travel to work within a city or in conurbations. But still, for the cities of tomorrow, we need higher numbers to switch to ecomobility – local public transport, cycling and walking.

And the coronavirus pandemic has shifted mobility behaviour even further towards cars.

In some cases. But not as much as the newspapers say. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate protection debate have had little impact on commuters’ driving behaviour: The percentages for the individual modes of transport are almost the same as they were in the last survey in 2016. What did have a much bigger impact during the pandemic was the lack of reasons for travelling due to short-time working and the extensive restrictions on public life.

What differences do you see between cities and the countryside?

Many people use a car not just for long drives, such as in the countryside. Passenger vehicles are often used for shorter journeys to work as well: According to the survey, almost half of all journeys to work are less than 6.5 miles. For around one-third of respondents, their commute to work is up to 16 miles, and only 14% cover 16 to 31 miles. The Federal Statistical Office speaks of the “unbroken dominance of the car” as a form of transport. This is also reflected in the number of new vehicle registrations: At the start of 2021, 48.2 million cars were registered in Germany. That is 14% more than ten years ago. There’s a trend for second or third cars. These figures are the cause of many problems in our cities: CO2 emissions, air pollution, ever-increasing congestion, soil sealing and higher risks of accidents.

We know from history that every dominance comes to an end eventually.

But not without a human will to change and probably not without regulatory measures as well. This is how I see the situation for the sector: The starting position you’ve described is clear. The operating framework has improved – take infrastructure investment, for example. But when you look at the climate protection targets and the speed needed to reach them, there is a lack of fundamental change accompanied by transport policy decisions. The sector is ready to play its part, as it has done in the past. And things are moving in our favour.

Can you go into that in more detail?

There are two developments: Firstly, we had record passenger numbers in the 22 years up to and including 2019, despite the challenging financial operating environment and hence without any fundamental expansion in local public transport provision. That shows that people will switch to local public transport if the right services are provided. But bus and train companies have been cut back for many years for cost-efficiency reasons. However, in recent years, we have sensed a change in direction from policymakers and local authorities: towards climate protection, growth, expanding provision and digitalisation. In addition, there’s the electrification of buses. This growth trajectory will take time because vehicle fleets, infrastructure and human resources will have to be expanded. But time is something we actually don’t have any more when it comes to achieving the climate protection targets.

You’ve mentioned it: Germany is to be climate-neutral by as early as 2045. Will the local authorities manage that?

This pledge is one that the Federal Government made on behalf of our country – and it includes an ambitious interim target for 2030. The climate neutrality that is desired and needed will transform the transport sector on a scale never seen before. It is down to the new Federal Government to organise this change from an economic, transport, energy and not least social perspective. But it will be implemented locally, in the cities and local authorities, in transport companies and transport authorities. What remains unclear – besides the general statements calling for abstract growth in buses and trains – is what the climate-neutral restructuring of the transport sector will look like in practice and what prerequisites must be in place. Two things are certain: Firstly, the sector will do everything to play a significant part in achieving the climate protection targets. Secondly, according to a report commissioned by the VDV as the sector association, the climate protection targets could be achieved by 2030 with a nationwide push to expand local public transport provision. With that approach, overall CO2 emissions from motorised private transport and local public transport could be reduced by 53% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

That is good news.

Yes and no because there are two crucial questions: how? And: where will the funds come from? Twenty thirty will soon be eight years away. That is literally the day after tomorrow in terms of the planning and ordering cycles in local public transport. We need – ideally simultaneously – more local public transport capacity and provision in cities and above all in the countryside, in line transport and demand-responsive line transport: Vehicle-kilometres have to increase by 60% by 2030, and passenger-kilometres by 24%. On this growth trajectory, revenues would increase by roughly 50% by 2030. However, the costs of staff, energy, new vehicles, drive electrification and so on would rise by about 90%. If public funding continues at the same level, there’d be a funding shortfall of around eleven billion euros by 2030 alone, and that’s assuming moderate increases in ticket prices. The Federal Government absolutely has to help the Federal States so that it can meet its own climate pledges in the transport sector.

What is your sector doing to meet the climate pledges?

We have to deliver on three points in particular: Our first priority must be to win back passengers after the pandemic to ensure funding for services. Some transport companies and transport authorities are starting to forge new paths with special offers, flexible and digital tickets, mobility accounts – all of these concepts take the changes in mobility habits into account.

Let’s talk about the keyword “coronavirus” – are people ready to travel by bus and train again?

Our nationwide campaign to thank passengers, “Deutschland Abo-Upgrade”, has shown that people have regained their trust in local public transport: 706,481 passengers participated so that they could use local and regional transport beyond the zones covered by their personal travel cards. But let’s get back to what the sector needs to do: We must use the considerably larger funds provided by the last Federal Government to upgrade and expand the infrastructure: The funding for local transport hasn’t been fully allocated despite the additions to the types of projects funded. These funds are still available, and approval procedures have been speeded up. We have to seize this historic window because the automotive industry is also gearing up for the transition – and so far, we’ve seen only a few restrictions on car transport in our cities. But we won’t achieve the transport transition with electric cars alone.

Winning back passengers, expanding the infrastructure – how can that work in terms of staffing?

We have to make sure that we have qualified employees. The transition is impossible without them. Local public transport will need around 110,000 additional workers by 2030 for the mobility transition, the expansion, digitalisation and modernisation, electrification and automation. On top of that, the large cohort of baby boomers will retire in the next ten years. That’s why the sector’s employer branding campaign (in-dir-steckt-zukunft.de) is continuing its work and supporting the human resources departments in the companies, and it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on the staffing situation in transport companies?

It’s still the case that we are looking for good people more than ever before and in all areas. We are turning to career changers – we didn’t give them enough consideration in the past. Above all, we want to recruit more women to our companies and focus on career changers, including university dropouts – and perhaps some will come from the branches of the economy that contracted dramatically due to the coronavirus crisis. In fact, a sector survey in 2020, the pandemic year, showed that approximately 76% of transport companies hired more people than in 2019. Around one-third recruited up to 10% more staff, while about 20% of respondents filled 15% or more new positions than in the previous year.

Are bus and train companies attractive employers?

We have our advantages. The number of applications in the sector increased last year because we offer crisis-proof jobs. During the coronavirus crisis, there were hardly any pandemic-related job cuts or short-time working in the sector. The transport companies maintained almost complete service provision throughout the crisis. As a result, the sector’s need for staff remained consistently high during the pandemic and continues to be high post-corona. Bus and train companies offer numerous jobs with future viability – that’s one of our plus points. What’s more, the roles are meaningful and sustainable in the face of the climate crisis.

Thank you for speaking to us.

Ingo Wortmann

Ingo Wortmann

Ingo Wortmann

Ingo Wortmann has been President of the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) since 2018 and Chairman of the Board of the Munich transport company Münchner Verkehrsgesellschaft mbH (MVG) since 2016. He previously served as Head of the Transport Planning and Market Research Department at DVB AG in Dresden and as a member of the transport committee of the City of Wuppertal.


Csilla Letay