From Distrust to a Must: How Germany Revealed the Beautiful World of Public Transportation

International Transportation and Michigan is a new Trans4M series examining public transportation projects from around the world. We will be focusing on four diverse regions; Germany, Singapore, Brazil, and India, in hopes of revealing how the world is growing through innovative public transportation projects and linking them back to Michigan. The first blog in the series is written by Hannah Lensing, Michigan State University student and 2014 Fall Trans4M Intern. She recounts her personal experiences with the German train system during her summer abroad in Mayen, Germany.

Dirty buses, violent subways, and pushy people filled the thoughts plaguing my mind as I sat in the Frankfurt Airport waiting for my train to arrive. How was I expected to navigate my way across a foreign country when I avoided using any means of public transportation back home?  Living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., I had access to perhaps one of the most extensive public transportation projects in the country, the Metro. And what did I do? I drove my car into the bustling city and paid absurd amounts to park. Like many others across the country, I clung to my car and shunned public transportation with all of its uncontrollable variables.

The small, yet charming train station of Mayen West.

The small, yet charming train station of Mayen West.

The German train system, known as Deutsche Bahn, is renowned for its extensive rail network. Traditionally there are three types of trains, the S-Bahn, the Regional Express (RE or RB), and the InterCity Express (ICE). The InterCity Express trains are the fastest in the nation traveling 320kmph or 200 mph. The trains range from small to large; depending on the amount of passengers they carry. The town I stayed in, Mayen, was a small, quaint town. As I traveled, I started on a small train, got on a regional train, and then an InterCity Express train that took me to larger cities. This extensive network of trains allowed me to move freely across Germany without once having to use a taxi.

InterCity Express (ICE) Train

InterCity Express (ICE) Train

Coming back to Michigan for the Fall Semester, my mind was overflowing with questions about the country’s transportation as a whole and specifically in Michigan. Michigan has always been a symbol of industrial success in the form of the automobile industry, yet, so has Germany. Therefore, Michigan’s pride in the automobile industry cannot be the sole reason for the lack of alternative transportation methods. If pride in automobile production is not the reason for lack of public transportation, then what is?

During the first week of my stay in Germany, I had the privilege to travel by rail to Freiburg, Germany’s most sustainable transportation city. Freiburg offered an ample amount of transportation options, ranging from the above ground rail transit, to a skyline taking you up into the Black Forest. Yet, Freiburg was not always this way. Post-WWII the city attempted to accommodate the growing use of automobiles and buses, envisioning the future of auto transportation much like the United States. During this time, car ownership increased along with pollution and traffic casualties, causing Freiburg to reevaluate the future of the city. In reinventing Freiburg, the City prioritized the people and public transportation, while the automobile traffic was restricted. The downtown area today bans automobiles; and instead of parking lots, it houses charming markets targeting tourists. Due to the lack of motor vehicles in the area, I was able to wander around and take pictures of gorgeous buildings without fear of being hit by a car. By blocking out cars, Freiburg managed to make the area more attractive and interactive to the inhabitants and visitors.

While both Germany and Michigan have a great focus on transportation innovation, the focus of Michigan’s innovation is on motor vehicles instead of the people who drive them. German policies support transit. For example, even though Germany is significantly smaller compared to the United States, Germany’s investments into rail and transit are double than those of the United States. Not to mention, you are required to be eighteen and pay around $2,000 to obtain a drivers license in Germany. No wonder many Germans choose to never get a driver’s license. While these regulations may appear unfair, they reveal the level to which the German government has gone to promote the use of public transportation. In doing so, they have provided freedom of mobility to various age groups and demographics, by linking inner cities to small towns across the nation through public transportation.

From right to left, Jennifer Jones, Deutsche Bahn Worker, and Hannah Lensing. The train was a great place to meet friends and experience the German culture.

From left to right, Jennifer Jones, Deutsche Bahn Worker, and Hannah Lensing. The train was a great place to meet friends and experience the German culture.

When using transit became a necessity, I went from a public transportation hater to an advocator. I adjusted myself to the uncontrollable variables of the system. I changed, missed, and chased trains. I experienced frustration when stranded at stations and I experienced elation jumping on a train right before it pulled away. I interacted with German natives in German and met some fascinating characters along the way. All in one trip, I managed to befriend some highly intoxicated Germans and a large man wearing a tutu for a bachelor party. While odd, I cherish these interactions, because they were unique experiences only possible in a public setting. These public transit and train trips turned into an extremely entertaining adventure for my suburb self.

Written by Hannah Lensing, Trans4M Fall Intern

One Comment on “From Distrust to a Must: How Germany Revealed the Beautiful World of Public Transportation

  1. “shunned public transportation with all of its uncontrollable variables.”
    Having grown up in Michigan and then having lived in DC for 11 years, I’d argue that there are many more uncontrollable variables in highway/automobile transportation. Public transit is much more consistent; even if there are delays, they rarely disrupt commerce or cause major gridlock. Not to mention that transit allows users to sit back and relax with a good book, a knitting project or any other device to encourage productivity.

    I’m glad for this blog series. Michigan is at least a decade behind when it comes to transportation but I’m glad to see a cultural shift, even if it is small now.

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