I just returned from 2 weeks in Europe, which always provides lots of inspiration to me as an urban planner, yet this time I noticed that in many ways great US and European cities are having more in common. Bike sharing, cycle tracks, streetcars and mobiles apps are spreading in both continents, to name just a few of the visible ways that mobility is being expanded – creating a new sense of urban vibrancy and excitement.
Research I am doing for Professor Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, where we are both Fellows with the University’s Metropolitan Institute, brought me to Vienna and Berlin to interview transit professionals. Ralph has written extensively on the differences in urban transportation between German and U.S. cities, especially in transit and bicycling trends. Our project identifies lessons in regional coordination for transit from metropolitan areas in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria with over 30 years of experience of regional coordination in so-called Verkehrsverbunds (regional transit authorities). For most regions in this country, transit service is provided by a network of public agencies and private providers too often requiring different fare cards to move between systems. In Western Europe, a more typical structure is for one fare card to provide access across an open transit system. Verkehrsverbunds have increased transit ridership and financial efficiency and help account for 5 to 10 times more transit trips per capita there than in the US. Lessons from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are meaningful, because of comparable federal structures of government, standards of living, and levels of motorization.
In Vienna, it was amazing to experience Wiener Linien’s 24/7 transit service with frequent headways, clean stations that were easy to navigate and an expansive urban transport network of rail, trams, buses and bike sharing. City officials are transforming policies to promote transportation alternatives. By reducing annual transit fares to 365 euro (roughly $1/day), providing real time information at bus stops, stations and on mobile apps and tightening citywide parking management, transit ridership has soared. This is perhaps unsurprising in a city famous for its culture, cafes, and quality of life. Yet the highly political and nasty debates over turning Mariahilfer Strasse into a pedestrian mall indicate that determining whether cities are intended to serve autos or people is a debate the world around.
Berlin also hosts an expansive transit network served by BVG (local transit) and VBB (regional transit), yet what was most amazing is the pervasive use of the sturdy, usually black Berlin bicycles by commuters, parents, soccer fans, tourists and children. I had heard much before visiting about the growing popularity of bicycling, but was surprised to see this in a city with relatively little bike infrastructure. Separated bike lanes were present in neighborhoods but bikes shared most city streets and parallel paths with trams. Simple bike parking was available, but in most places was far below the need.
Equally impressive to me was the visible legacy of the divide between East and West Berlin visible on the regional transit map. Under the DDR, streetcars were the mode of choice with an expansive network established and supported by the S-Bahn rail system. In contrast, post-war planners in West Berlin desired to make it an example of the “auto-city” with wider streets, ample parking and investments in the underground rail network. Today, the transit map still shows this division though the system is being knitted together through buses, bicycles and modest expansion of the rail network. Ridership on many urban lines exceed capacity and regional transit coordination is itself part of the re-unification story.
Across the globe urban innovation is underway as cities continue the long tradition of re-invention to serve the changing economies, growing population, and desire for more vibrant and sustainable lifestyles. Common to these efforts is the challenge of financing infrastructure in a time of shrinking public investment. Elected leaders and transportation professionals are anxious to learn from one another, especially as global capital will play a central role. Public-private partnerships are being explored in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, China and across the globe.
Obvious and important distinctions exist, however, in how transportation is financed, administered and provided. European systems have historically enjoyed much stronger public financial support, with a majority of funding for system expansion coming from the local or state level. For German systems, the planning and policy functions are typically separated from transit operations with the former largely done by public agencies and the latter by private providers (many of whom may be publicly owned). A recent study published by EMBARQ provides more detail on how countries, including Germany and the US, finance public transportation.
While the transportation industry evolves to face this challenge, we must also remember that it is equally important to engage the public in the decision making and planning process. Ultimately public support or opposition will influence what and how things are built, and designing systems to meet the changing needs and preferences of our society that is increasingly connected, mobile, and tech-savvy. Vienna and Berlin offer lessons, but I continue to believe that in the area of inclusive planning the United States maintains a strong lead. If you are also interested in how we can help to transfer and build shared knowledge in this area of urban transport, please drop me a line!