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Transit Lessons from Germany

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Saturday, June 28, 2014

INTRO: In the 1950’s, Detroit was known as the Paris of the Midwest. It was elegant and a magnet for people around the world. One can argue that the public transit system held it together. The last streetcar was sold off in 1956. But does that mean that we don’t have anything to learn from old Europe? Adrianna Jordan is an urban planner and transportation engineer. This is her first report for Michigan Now. See the issues she works on back here at home.

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In May I went to Germany. Public transit glues the country together. Trains left the station on time and stopped wherever people needed them.

Andrea Goetzelmann lives in Vienna, Austria and went by train to Munich to visit some friends for the weekend, choosing the train because it was cheap and convenient.

“It’s the friendliest way to move around. That also affects economy because you can save time and money.”

How many Americans do you hear say this?”

“I never drive. I can’t drive and I don’t need to because the public transport works so well.”

Riders of DDOT and SMART in Detroit wish they could say that. American cities had their money siphoned off to the suburbs. But the opposite happened in Europe. The wealthy are in the city centers. The poor are stuck on the outskirts. But everyone can travel where they want. Of European transit, Andrea says:

“It can connect, for instance, cheaper living areas with the working areas and make them accessible for people who can’t afford to live in town.”

Munich is designed for walking. At an outdoor café next to a museum, Andrea meets up with Ann Thiersch, who lives and works here. For her, transit creates a higher quality of life:

“We can have parks in the city because we don’t have that many streets and that many public spaces. So we would use public transport instead. So I think it’s good for the environment and the economy because people are very well connected within the city. They move from bar to bar and café to café which I think also supports the economy.”

They’re talking about partying at Munich’s beer halls. No one has to worry about police charging them with DUI. The subway is still running when the bars close. Riders even carry their liquor onto the train. And it’s normal.

Ann Thiersch says:

“Oh, I don’t even own a car. I have a bike which might be a very European thing to have. So I use my bike almost every day depending on the weather. I don’t drive a car.”

During the Cold War, West Berlin and East Berlin were in different countries. They were separated by a strip of land a hundred miles long and 300 feet across. Troops and tanks patrolled it. It was a no man’s land. People tried to escape from communism there. Many got shot and died.

The subway system was built before Berlin was cut in half. Then for 30 years, free Germany’s subway trains ran past the communist side subway stations without stopping. Those were known as “ghost stations.” But the communists never cut the subway lines. After German reunification, almost all they had to do was turn the lights back on in the stations.

Michigan had thousands of miles of tracks connecting neighborhoods and cities. They were buried or torn out. We have to build from scratch again.

Germans love trains. But that doesn’t mean they’re communists.

Guillaume Letinois is from Paris. He now lives in Berlin. He justifies the high cost of a large transit system:

“It’s a little expensive. But the city is very big.”

Letinois knows Detroit is big too. But he thinks transit must be part of Detroit’s rebuilding process.

“I know that the city is gone. It was kaput. But there are a lot of cheap housing so it’s also renewing. A lot of artists are coming in. Many galleries are opening.”

Kate Krull is from Ann Arbor and loves the social interaction on Berlin’s subways. She wonders why Michiganders don’t make public transit a priority.

“Here in Berlin a typical morning I will see people with briefcases, people heading to kindergarten with their children, I will see people going to doctors appointments. It’s a special meeting place.”

Berlin’s newest subway line took14 years and 460 million dollars to build but few people are complaining.

Kate’s husband Volker says about the mass transit system:

“If everybody would have a car it would just collapse. So the people who use it and don’t have a car I think they are doing everybody a favor.”

There were 50 million bus trips around Detroit last year. If you took those riders off the buses and put them on the roads everyone would be stuck in traffic.

One Response to “Transit Lessons from Germany”

  1. Megan says:

    Excellent piece! Thanks for sharing!

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A "Regio" regional train waiting to depart from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof which opened in 2006.

A "Regio" regional train waiting to depart from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof which opened in 2006.

Yellow trams on Berlin's streets. The tramway network is one of the world's oldest, dating back to 1865.

Yellow trams on Berlin's streets. The tramway network is one of the world's oldest, dating back to 1865.

Passengers disembark a "Regio" regional train at the Rostock Hauptbahnhof ("central station").

Passengers disembark a "Regio" regional train at the Rostock Hauptbahnhof ("central station").

The tramway network runs along both sides of Doberaner Platz in Rostock, Germany.

The tramway network runs along both sides of Doberaner Platz in Rostock, Germany.

Riders on Munich's U-Bahn. "U-Bahn" is the German contraction for Untergrundbahn or "underground railway".

Riders on Munich's U-Bahn. "U-Bahn" is the German contraction for Untergrundbahn or "underground railway".

A vintage Siemens advertisement that shows the evolution of public transit decorates one of Berlin's transit stations.

A vintage Siemens advertisement that shows the evolution of public transit decorates one of Berlin's transit stations.

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