Germany’s Transportation Evolution: Up Close and Personal

Given similarly challenging economic situations facing both Europe and the United States, comparisons continue between the two in recent news outlets. While most of these focus on the dire economic choices facing leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, one recent article in the New York Times caught my eye given its focus was infrastructure.  On that score, America is falling decidedly short.

For American who believe in the power of transportation and energy investments to catalyze long-term economic resiliency, Uwe Reinhardt’s piece, “America’s Mid-20th Century Infrastructure, is a jarring wake up call. It provides simple yet stunning reminders that our nation is falling behind our international competitors in ways both large (high speed rail) and small (pre-boarding track information).

Stuttgart Sommerregen  by bastian_r

It also was perfect timing as I prepare to travel to Stuttgart, Germany later this week to participate in a Transatlantic Urban Climate Dialogue through my work with Virginia Tech.  Having been to Germany several times over the past 15 years, I have been struck by the similarities of our two transportation systems – after all President Eisenhower was supposedly motivated to build America’s Interstate after driving on Germany’s autobahn at the end of WWII – and the tremendous distinctions.  In Germany, transport accounts for 20% of GHG emissions compared to over 30% in the US (2010 figures), and annual per capita  CO2 emissions from passenger transport per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) were 2.4 times greater in the U.S. than in Germany.

Numerous scholars have already beaten the comparative analysis path between the two countries including my colleague at VATech, Ralph Buehler who will also be joining me next week. a recent paper he co-authored with John Pucher (Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA), details the distinctions between public transit ridership in both countries and Germany’s greater success in raising transit ridership during the past 20 years.  

I had a chance to personally witness this back in 2001 when I traveled to Ingolstadt, Germany to visit my in-laws who were on a teaching exchange. They temporarily relocated from their cul-de-sac neighborhood in St. Cloud, MN to an urban neighborhood located an easy bike ride from the University, farmer’s market and favorite ice cream shop. As a professor of business management, my father-in-law was fascinated by the city’s Audi factory and its economic importance to the region. As a transportation planner, I was fascinated that “the Detroit” of Germany had amazingly clean and efficient public buses providing high frequency service within the town, and connecting to nearby cities. What’s more, the Audi plant provided bus service, not free parking, to its thousands of employees.

This was also my first time seeing cycle lanes located between the sidewalk and parking lanes rather than between moving traffic and parked cars. This small distinction meant that cycling was much safer for both skilled bicyclists and those a little unsteady on their wheels. During the time these investments were made, the percentage of German commuters using public transport to get to work rose from 13% in 1993 to 16% in 2008 (versus approx. 5% in USA).  For Audi, this made good economic sense and for the region it helped to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Biking in Ingolstadt By R. Skalbeck

Biking in Ingolstadt By R. Skalbeck

For my father in-law who left his car behind in St. Cloud and starting walking, biking and riding transit around Ingolstadt, the physical changes were incredible to see. Prior to his departure he suffered numerous health problems related to high blood pressure and heart disease. Visiting that year at Christmas we saw a man 30 lbs lighter than when he’d left the USA in July, and as a result had been instructed by his doctor to reduce several of his medications. These health impacts from active living are not unique, and community design plays an important role. Investing in a wider choice of safe, reliable and convenient transportation options is good for regional economies and for the quality of life and health of those living and working in these places. The fact that such strategies reduce our carbon footprint is an additional, and important, bonus.

I will be joined next week by a mix of American and German policymakers, technical experts, and academics to deepen our understanding about shared transatlantic challenges with local energy and sustainable transportation development and implementation. I’ll share observations through Twitter @MZStrat and in follow-up blogs.