Trains, Walking, Biking: Why Germany Needs to Look Beyond Cars

Power Switch: Fourth in a continuing series about the German energy transition.

BERLIN—In Germany, you can go almost anywhere on a train.

Inside this city’s glass-enclosed central station, trains from the local transit system arrive on the upper level from all over the region, their doors opening to disgorge the morning commuters.

Down several turns of an escalator are the below-ground platforms for the big, inter-city trains that will get you to Frankfurt or Hamburg or the far corners of Europe. 

Germany does trains with aplomb, part of a broader, environment-friendly culture in much of Europe that values the ability to go places on foot, on a bike or using public transportation.

But Germany is also the country where those good intentions hit the reality of a nation that loves its cars. It has high rates of car ownership, and its citizens revere homegrown auto brands like Volkswagen and BMW.

The push and pull of this dichotomy was clear to me when I went to Germany not long ago to check on the progress of the country’s energy transition, or Energiewende, and see what lessons it might hold for the United States. 

Germany has ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the threat of climate change. But there are clashing views about how the transportation sector—which accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s emissions—should fit into those goals. 

Getting Around

Automakers and the German federal government envision a transition to electric vehicles, in which the big shift takes place under the hood, and the car-loving life can continue. Many environmental advocates and transportation researchers, on the other hand, say a switch to EVs is just one part of what needs to be a much larger transformation, with a substantial reduction in the use of personal vehicles and big increases in walking, biking and public transportation.

“Going to EVs alone will not be enough,” said Ralph Buehler, an expert on transportation and land use who has written extensively about transit systems in Europe.

The debate pits car companies and retailers against environmental groups and many residents. But it also reflects the dueling priorities of federal and local governments. National leaders want to help preserve jobs in the auto industry and are wary of anything that would harm the finances of automakers. Local governments are the ones that can, and increasingly do, make changes to roads and sidewalks to encourage more people to bike and walk. 

Some environmental advocates argue that the popularity of car ownership in Germany is less about a passion for driving than about necessity in a flawed system. Many Germans, they say, would gladly give up their cars if the country was more accommodating in providing other modes of transportation. 

These advocates point to cities like Freiburg, where decades of investment in public transit and bike infrastructure have contributed to a drop in the rate of car ownership, and to two thriving neighborhoods in Freiberg that were designed to de-emphasize cars.

But Germany is still early in its process of transforming cities and transportation, although it is much further along than the United States.

I wrote in June about Germany’s car culture and the pressure to get the politically powerful auto industry, led by Volkswagen, to shift to EVs. That story is a jumping off point for this one.

‘A More People-Friendly Type of Mobility’

Germany has some advantages over the United States in developing pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods, and one of the biggest is the availability of public transportation. 

While I was in Germany, nearly all of my travel was using public transport and walking. I saw how the country has invested heavily in public transport, even in small and mid-size cities.

In Freiburg, for example, a light rail line runs down the main greenway of the Vauban neighborhood, with trains arriving about every 10 minutes. The city’s rail and bus lines serve the needs of just about every commuter, as the main form of transportation and also as a backup for people who prefer to bike or walk to work on most days.

Germany's Green City

A visitor might find the transit options remarkable considering that the Freiburg metro area has a population of about 650,000, similar to mid-size U.S. cities like Des Moines, Iowa, and Toledo, Ohio.

Freiburg and other German cities also make more room for bicycles, accepting them as a necessary form of transportation.

But biking advocates in Germany feel as if most cities there have only begun to realize the benefits of being more hospitable to bicycles. 

I could see this in Berlin, where biking advocate Dirk von von Schneidemesser suggested we meet near Holzmarktstrasse, a street that had one of the city’s first dedicated bike lanes.

The lanes, painted green and red and marked off with pole-like plastic barriers, would look unremarkable for anyone who has been to bike friendly cities in Europe or the United States. But in Berlin, getting this lane on this street was a big deal, the culmination of years of work by von Schneidemesser’s group, Changing Cities.

“We are looking to create a mobility transition from below,” he said, with the change coming from grassroots action, “so that our cities accomodate a more environmentally sustainable, a healthier, a cleaner and a more people-friendly type of mobility.”

To fight climate change in a meaningful way, von Schneidemesser said, Germany needs to work to alter its relationship with cars. Electric vehicles are part of the solution, but he sees this as secondary to the larger aim of getting people to rely much less on using cars.

This would be a fundamental shift in the way that cities are designed, with less space for parking and fewer lanes for motor vehicles. Until the government takes serious steps to do this, von Schneidemesser said, he doubts that there can be meaningful progress on reducing emissions.

The kind of city he wants to see, he added, would have much lower emissions. With fewer cars, there would be less of a need to build new roads and parking garages, reducing demand for concrete and other materials that have high carbon footprints. Cities would be able to convert some pavement to green space, which, if done on a large enough scale, can reduce the “heat island” effect that makes cities hotter than their surrounding rural areas.

 A reduction in vehicle use would mean fewer emissions tied to manufacturing vehicles. 

While EVs have low emissions related to their use compared to gasoline vehicles, they also have emissions related to obtaining raw materials, manufacturing and using the electricity grid. If the goal is to get emissions to zero, or close to zero, then governments need to take steps to reduce vehicle traffic and get people to use other modes of transport, along with getting the remaining vehicle fleet to switch to electricity.

But there is a disconnect between the idea of automakers switching to electric motors as part of a strategy to maintain their economic clout, and the idea of sharply reducing use of cars.

If Germany redesigned its cities to emphasize walking and biking and to deemphasize driving, fewer people would own cars, and auto companies would probably make less money and employ fewer people—a political nonstarter.

For now, most of the big steps taken by Germany’s federal government are going to be with EVs, while the challenge of remaking cities is mostly being taken up at the local level, in places like Freiburg. 

Progressive Islands in a Mostly Car-Happy World

A university city in the Black Forest region, near the Rhine River border with France, Freiburg is a progressive bastion that has become a global example of how to build and sustain a transportation system that de-emphasizes cars.

The city and the surrounding region have historically been hubs of environmental activism. One of the formative events was protest and occupation in the mid-1970s of a proposed nuclear power plant site in Wyhl, a rural village located about 20 miles northwest of Freiburg. The uprising helped to inspire environmentalists across the country.

A mural in the Vauban neighborhood of Freiburg shows Pippi Longstocking, the main character in a series of children’s books. Vauban is designed in a way that emphasizes walking, biking and public transport, and it has limits on cars. Credit: Patrick Seeger/picture alliance via Getty Images
A mural in the Vauban neighborhood of Freiburg shows Pippi Longstocking, the main character in a series of children’s books. Vauban is designed in a way that emphasizes walking, biking and public transport, and it has limits on cars. Credit: Patrick Seeger/picture alliance via Getty Images

People in and around Freiburg formed a coalition from across the political spectrum, based upon a shared desire for local control over whether large energy projects would get built, and an opposition to the rampant development that was changing the area’s character.

Many of the people in the environmental movement also wanted to find ways to reduce or eliminate their use of motor vehicles. In the 1970s, the city built a network of cycling paths and began to build extensions of the light rail system. That was followed in the early 1980s by new planning rules that said new developments need to have easy access to transit stops.

The changes helped to turn Freiburg from a city with normal car-use patterns to one that began to diverge from other German cities its size, according to a 2011 paper co-authored by Buehler, who is a native of the state that includes Freiburg and now teaches in the United States at Virginia Tech.

The Vauban neighborhood of Freiburg was designed to encourage energy conservation, from the design of buildings, to the placement of green spaces, to limits on where cars can drive and park. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
The Vauban neighborhood of Freiburg was designed to encourage energy conservation, from the design of buildings, to the placement of green spaces, to limits on where cars can drive and park. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

In 1970, Freiburg had a rate of car ownership—248 cars per 1,000 residents—that was 19 percent greater than Germany as a whole, the authors found. By 1990, however, although car ownership rates had increased in both Freiburg and country-wide, Freiburg’s rate—422 per 1,000 residents—was 5 percent lower than Germany’s. By 2006, Freiburg’s rate had decreased a bit further, and was 23 percent lower than the country as a whole.

Freiburg’s decrease in the rate of car ownership was remarkable because it happened at the same time that the city’s population was increasing and the economy was booming, factors that often contribute to an increase in the rate of people using personal vehicles, Buehler said.

Wolfgang Teubner, the regional director of ICLEI, a global nonprofit that works with local governments on sustainability issues, moved to Freiburg in 1980 to attend university there, and never left the city. 

Wolfgang Teubner, a regional director for the sustainability nonprofit ICLEI, rides his bike in the Rieselfeld neighborhood of Freiburg where he lives. Rieselfeld and Vauban are two neighborhoods in the city that were designed to accommodate biking, walking and public transport, and de-emphasize cars. Courtesy of Wolfgang Teubner
Wolfgang Teubner, a regional director for the sustainability nonprofit ICLEI, rides his bike in the Rieselfeld neighborhood of Freiburg where he lives. Rieselfeld and Vauban are two neighborhoods in the city that were designed to accommodate biking, walking and public transport, and de-emphasize cars. Courtesy of Wolfgang Teubner

He saw the changes taking place in the way transportation was structured as they were happening. The city government gradually built bicycle lanes on streets and off-street bike paths, which led to more people biking. Once large numbers of people choose to commute by bike, they helped to create the demand for neighborhoods that accommodated that lifestyle.

“This is not a culture built in a day,” Teubner said.

He noted that retailers pushed back against measures that limited traffic and parking in the center of the city. But the emphasis on walking and biking turned out to be good for business, with a big increase in foot traffic. 

In the early 1990s, Freiburg’s government developed two new neighborhoods that would emphasize public transport, walking and biking: Rieselfeld and Vauban.

Rieselfeld, on the western edge of the city, was built on the site of a former sewage processing farm. Vauban, on the southern outskirts, sits on the grounds of a former French military base.

Rieselfeld opened to residents in the mid-1990s and now has a population of about 10,500.

Teubner, who lives in the neighborhood, said Rieselfeld’s design makes it easy to walk, bike or take public transport for most trips, with basic services located within walking distance. Cars are allowed and there is on-street parking, but many residents choose not to have cars because they don’t need them. The speed limit is set at an intentionally slow 30 kilometers per hour (18 mph), which makes roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

But to outsiders, Rieselfeld probably looks like an ordinary medium-density neighborhood, Teubner said.

Residents have gotten used to the convenience of having most retail and other services within walking distance, which means they spend very little time traveling and dealing with the hassles of parking, he said. They feel safe crossing the streets and letting children play outside.

Teubner said he “would really struggle” if he ever had to go back to living in a typical neighborhood, and he thinks that many of his neighbors would agree.

Want a Parking Space? $27,000, Please

Vauban, which opened a few years after Rieselfeld, was an even purer expression of the idea of an eco-friendly neighborhood, with even more restrictions on cars.

In Vauban, one of the few places with on-street parking and unfettered motor vehicles is the main drag, Vaubanallee, which features a greenway, a light rail station and wide sidewalks. In most of the neighborhood, the narrow roads are dominated by pedestrians and bicycles, with motor vehicles only allowed for emergencies and for brief tasks like loading or unloading.

People who own cars must buy spaces in one of two central parking garages at a cost of 22,000 Euros, or nearly $27,000, according to the city government.

A man rides a bicycle amid trees with leaves turned in yellow, orange and red colors in front of Berlin Television Tower during autumn season in Berlin, Germany on Oct. 22, 2020. Credit: Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The side streets are quiet and safe, flanked by overflowing home gardens, and just a short stroll from parks and nature areas.

“We don’t really need a car,” said Irene Pacini, a longtime resident. “Most of the things you need every day you can get on foot, like the supermarket.”

Pacini is a translator and her husband, Reinhard Huschke, is a freelance writer, jobs that they can do from their home offices. They haven’t had a car for years, they said, and subscribe to a car-sharing service for the rare times that they need a personal vehicle.

The couple said that the social closeness of Vauban is the defining trait in their experience, more than anything about the buildings or transportation. People get to know each other because the housing units are close together, their children play together and the local government relies on residents to be involved in decision-making.

And all along, the loudest noise is that of children playing in the streets.

“It’s a nicer noise than the noise made by cars,” Huschke said.

Making Car Use ‘A Pain in the Neck’

While Vauban, and to a lesser extent, Rieselfeld, get a lot of attention from researchers and tourists, they are just two of several examples in Europe of neighborhoods designed so that people do not need cars.

Another is Kronsberg in the city of Hanover in north-central Germany, which was developed starting in the early 1990s. The city government designed Kronsberg so that essential services are so close to housing that people won’t want or need to use cars, and commuters have easy access to public transportation.

Other examples are in Sweden, including Hammarby Sjöstad, a neighborhood in Stockholm, and several parts of the city of Malmö.

Gary Coates, an Kansas State University architecture professor who has spent much of his career studying Vauban and other eco-friendly neighborhoods, said that Germans “have begun to try to envision a world in which transportation by the automobile is not absolutely necessary.” 

But the key word in that sentence is “begun,” because even Germany is still in the early stages.

According to Coates, there are no planned neighborhoods in the United States quite like Vauban or the other places he has studied in Europe. The closest parallels are places with plans that still await funding, like Bayview Village, a long-gestating proposal to redevelop part of Hayward, California, in the Bay Area.

Bayview Village is the passion project of Sherman Lewis, a professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay, who has spent more than two decades trying to build support for the plan, to no avail. Contacted last month, he was pessimistic about the plan’s future, saying, “Things [were] not looking good,” because of a lack of funding. He has been saying that for some time.

Coates said the United States would benefit if it had a place like Vauban because it would help to inspire others and dispel the idea that such a thing can only work in Europe.

But even Germany doesn’t have enough of these kinds of neighborhoods to make a difference on the scale that is needed to change cities in a substantial way, he said.

Researchers have tried to understand why Germany and the United States have such different attitudes about public transportation. 

Two studies that used similar methods to look at transportation in each of the two countries show the extent of the differences. In Germany, in 2017, the year the research focused on, 57 percent of trips were in private vehicles, compared to 82.4 percent in the United States. 

But Germany made up for that difference with walking, biking and public transportation, the studies suggest. In Germany, 22 percent of trips were made by walking in 2017, compared with 10.5 percent in the United States. Similarly, 11 percent of those studied in Germany biked, compared with 1 percent in the United States. And while in Germany, 10 percent of the people surveyed said they used public transportation, only 5.4 percent said so in the United States.

Germans also have high expectations for public transportation. One of the recurring complaints within Germany is that trains and other forms of transit need more funding and are overcrowded. 

John Pucher, an urban planning professor at Rutgers University who has studied public transit in Europe, said transit has succeeded in Germany because of extensive service that is available at affordable fares, which is possible because of high taxes and, in some places, restrictions on car use.

“The one way to make public transit irresistible is to make car use a pain in the neck and very expensive,” said Pucher, who is a frequent collaborator with Ralph Buehler and was a co-author of the Freiburg paper. “But the problem, politically, is that’s sort of a non-starter in the United States.”

A Conversation That Is Just Beginning

In Germany and in the United States, the conversation about reducing the use of personal vehicles has now run headlong into the Covid-19 pandemic.

On a morning last spring, the changes became clear to von Schneidemesser, the biking advocate in Berlin, when he was on his bike and stopped to appreciate an eerie sight: Bismarckstrasse, usually one of the most congested thoroughfares in the city, was quiet and nearly empty.

“It’s like a ghost town,” he said.

Biking advocate Dirk von Schneidemesser is interviewed near Holzmarktstrasse in Berlin, where his organization, Changing Cities, campaigned successfully for one of the city’s first dedicated bicycle lanes. Credit: Dan Gearino
Biking advocate Dirk von Schneidemesser is interviewed near Holzmarktstrasse in Berlin, where his organization, Changing Cities, campaigned successfully for one of the city’s first dedicated bicycle lanes. Credit: Dan Gearino

In the absence of cars and trucks, von Schneidemesser said he could fully appreciate how much noise they make and the omnipresent smell of exhaust.

During the lockdowns of the pandemic, Berlin and other German cities have accelerated their development of dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian zones. Officials were responding to a growth in demand as commuters choose to bike instead of taking public transit, and are looking for ways to exercise other than indoor gyms.

But the pandemic has also hurt the idea of eco-friendly transportation in some ways, with many Germans avoiding mass transit because of concerns about the virus. The virus has shown some of the advantages of traveling in a personal motor vehicle, where drivers don’t need to worry about being exposed to strangers.

But it would be premature to draw many conclusions about what this global health crisis means for how we think about transportation.

The people I interviewed said they hope we are close to an inflection point in which the idea of moving beyond cars gains currency outside of academia and activist circles, and they hope that the virus, by forcing people to examine their everyday behavior, has helped to move this process forward.

The goal is for walking, biking and mass transport to be viewed as so essential to everyday life that city governments make planning decisions with those modes of transportation in mind, just as much, if not more than, personal motor vehicles. And even in Germany, that conversation is just beginning.

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