This summary provides a brief introduction to the concept of the “Bürgerbus” as presented in the German version of this website. It is not a direct translation of the German site’s content.
There is no official, legal, generally recognised definition for the German term “Bürgerbus”. It is a term that recently has appeared in some state public transport laws as a possible way to organise services, but only as an option. Hence some services branded as such do not meet the definition provided below; vice versa there are cases where the definition is adhered to, but under a different name. Nevertheless, based on the far majority of applications in Germany, the following definition can be derived:
A Bürgerbus is a public transport service which uses unpaid volunteers for most or all tasks, in particular for driving the vehicles. A Bürgerbus makes use of local resources and knowledge and close collaboration with other local stakeholders. The vehicles used are minibuses or large passenger cars.
This includes four key elements. Each of them has its own implications for the kind of service that can be offered:
Public transport service
The Bürgerbus is part of the public transport system. Its existence is published, it is accessible to the general public, it carries different passengers who do not (need to) know each other in one vehicle, it charges the same fares to all passengers, and it operates according to a pre-defined schedule. Not all of these conditions are necessarily adhered to in all cases, however. In particular, services may operate as demand-responsive, hence requiring pre-booking. In the more recent past, there have been a growing number of services that explicitly cater for specific groups. Nevertheless, the Bürgerbus has to be distinguished from special, “closed-door” transport tailored to a certain group’s needs (such as school buses, patients’ and disabled persons’ transport).
This is the key feature of a Bürgerbus service. The use of voluntary civic engagement allows substantial savings to be made compared to normal bus operations - drivers’ wages and social security fees typically account for 60-70% of operating costs. For volunteers, only fees for a special driving licence and medical examinations are necessary, and even this cost item depends on the local regulations. On the contrary, volunteers need to be recruited and kept, based on their personal motivation.
Local resources and knowledge
The reliance on volunteers - usually recruited from the community in which the bus operates - already links a Bürgerbus much closer to the local community than a traditional public transport service, which is managed by medium or large companies dealing with a large area and with drivers living somewhere else. In this way, the Bürgerbus drivers and other activists are close to their customers and are able to respond to specific local needs. Furthermore, the Bürgerbus depends on local cooperation and networking to secure funding and fulfil its role. Support from the local authorities, businesses and civil society organisation is therefore very important.
The exclusive use of small vehicles is linked to the fact that Bürgerbusse are complements to other public transport services and operate in areas of low demand, where these vehicles are sufficient. But the main reason is a practical one: holders of a normal car driving license in Germany are permitted to steer vehicles carrying up to 8 passengers. To be able to get enough volunteers, it is essential to use vehicles that citizens with the normal driving license can drive.
There are today more than 250 Bürgerbus services operating in Germany. The idea of using volunteers in public transport was first used in Germany in 1985. Following initial success, the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen) decided to fund further pilot applications and then set up a framework of financial support. This has been maintained ever since and had a significant positive impact on the number of schemes - about half of all Bürgerbus services operate in North-Rhine Westphalia. In the state of Baden-Württemberg, about 30 “Bürgerbus” services and about a dozen “Bürgerrufautos” (passenger cars providing a demand-responsive service, see below) are operating at present. Locations can be seen on the map.
Service types and settings
Based on the characteristics outlined above, Bürgerbusse fulfil a complementary role in the public transport system and cater for situations of low demand. They can nevertheless be found in a variety of geographical settings and market segments. Two service concepts clearly dominate:
The “urban-rural link” connects a district centre (small or medium-sized town) with the surrounding villages at times or in areas where no other bus service operates. The district centre is usually the main destination, but also the place where connections to other bus and train services are provided.
The “small city bus” operates within a city or town which is too small for a traditional city bus, but still too big to be served adequately by the regional services present. These cities often have housing estates far away from the main roads, shops, leisure establishments and other facilities are scattered over the whole area and/or have moved to the periphery in recent years. The bus service links the different parts of town with each other, with the centre and with ongoing public transport services.
Despite a predominance of schemes in rural settings, there are also some applications in medium and larger cities, where the Bürgerbus usually provides a feeder or inter-borough service in suburban locations.
Variations of the concept
Further important variations lie in the service concept, service hours and target group. The far majority is run as a traditional bus service with fixed stops, fixed timetables and accessible to everybody. A minority offers instead an in part or completely demand-responsive service, where only service hours, corridors or areas of operation are pre-determined and users have to call and book the particular journey. The number of such services has grown in the last years as more of the new foundations focus on older people as the main user group. In Baden-Württemberg, the term Bürgerrufauto is used to refer to such services.
Most services operate on weekdays during daytime hours, with the number of trips and temporal coverage depending on the type of demand, but also available manpower. The most common arrangement is a service in the morning between about 8am and 1pm. “Bigger” services run also in the afternoon, smaller only on certain days of the week.
Senior citizens are in fact the by far dominating demographic group, with the share of children, commuters, homeworkers and tourists being more or less marginal. But this also depends on the service concept and the general framework conditions: commuters often cannot be carried due to late start of the service, and journeys to and from school usually require larger capacities and are thus provided by traditional buses.
About the NVBW
The Nahverkehrsgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg (NVBW, literal translation Local Public Transport Agency) is the mobility agency for the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg. The company was established in 1995 as a result of railway restructuring in Germany, which included devolution of responsibility for regional rail services to the state level. Hence NVBW’s core activity lies in the management of regional rail transport, comprising service and infrastructure planning, tendering, controlling and performance monitoring.
Over time, the range of tasks has widened, and NVBW is now active in a range of activities related to public transport, walking and cycling. These include public transport travel information, marketing, support of service planning, tariffs, and the promotion of networking, training and exchange between the state’s local and regional authorities. NVBW also offers its services on a consultancy basis. Depending on the nature of the task, the agency collaborates in different settings with local, regional and state authorities, transport providers and other institutions.
As part of the public transport activities, the “Competence Centre for Innovation in Rural Public Transport” has been established in 2014 to provide advice and support for local and regional stakeholders, who have the statutory task of providing public transport by road and urban rail. The centre works also as a networking institution and participates in research activities. Volunteer-based public transport and other community transport schemes are one of the centre’s main areas of work.