Max: Transportation SystemsJanuary 5, 2012
Transportation is something most of us use every day, but notice only when it bothers us or stops working correctly. Every week I take the subway to campus and back and take a local train to visit nearby relatives, but I rarely stop to think about how this wouldn’t be possible at all in Minneapolis because of the lack of reliable rail service and infrastructure. On the occasions that I do stop to think about the transportation I use every day I realize how different the transportation systems in the US and Germany (and in Minneapolis and Munich) are. Even if I had a car and could use the road system I would be noticing some big differences:
The first thing most Americans will notice when first driving on German highways is the stretches where there is absolutely no speed limit. While it seems a little odd at first that this is the same country where you can get ticketed for passing a car on the right, or even driving in a left lane when the one to the right of you is free, it makes sense when you realize that it can be more dangerous to disrupt the normal flow of traffic than to drive very fast. Also, German drivers generally don’t drive faster than they feel is safe.
The other major difference in road travel, besides the fact that German drivers seem to be, in general, much better (more attentive) drivers than the ones in Minnesota, is in the structure of road networks. Most large German cities, including Munich, existed long before cars or even horses and carriages were in common use. They grew slowly, starting with a wall around the inner city, then eventually broke out of that wall and absorbed smaller cities nearby. The roads developed slowly along with the city, eventually forming a radial pattern with the oldest part of the city in the center. This historic city center is often a pedestrian zone; car travel is limited in this area.
Large American cities, by contrast, usually have a pronounced grid pattern in their street layouts and the entire city is usually directly accessible by car. This is probably the result of deliberate planning due to the fast growth of these cities. Even outside of cities this pattern is apparent: Most of the farmland in the large, flat parts of the US is divided by roads into neatly tessellating squares and rectangles, giving the land the appearance of a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. This isn’t the case in Germany, where farms generally have a more irregular shape.
Where the American and German transportation systems differ the most, of course, is in passenger rail infrastructure. American regional and inter-city rail service is either slow, unreliable, or rarely available in most parts of the country. For the majority of Americans it isn’t an attractive option for any kind of travel. The only options these Americans have for inter-city travel are car or airplane travel, neither of which is particularly comfortable or enjoyable.
Germany, on the other hand, has an extensive rail network that reaches every major city, just about every small city, and even some large villages across the entire country. Train travel is a viable option for those who do not own cars, along with car sharing or comparably-priced flights. The service is usually punctual and has a frequency of at least one train every one or two hours at most stations. The trains are usually fast and comfortable, with the extreme being the high-speed InterCity-Express service that can travel up to 300 km/h and is the most comfortable vehicle in which I have ever traveled (except the one time I flew on business class, but that was orders of magnitude more expensive than a typical ICE rail ticket). Compared to car travel, train travel is comparable in cost (depending on the level of train speed and comfort) and often is about as fast, occasionally even faster (also depending on the location of your start point and destination).
Perhaps most Americans simply prefer the flexibility and independence offered by cars over the comfort, low cost, and safety offered by trains. Perhaps the US’s geographic size and relatively low population density make trains an impractical option compared to cars and airplanes. Whatever the reason, America’s passenger rail network has a long way to go to match the efficiency, popularity, and ubiquity of Germany’s network.
Until now I’ve covered road and rail networks on a regional and national scale. This leaves out an important component of transportation networks, namely public transportation within cities. It’s hard to make national generalizations in this area, mostly because each city seems to take a unique approach to public transportation. Since I have used the transportation systems of both Munich and Minneapolis/St. Paul extensively, I’ll profile them as examples. I should note that the city of Munich is considerably larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. Munich’s population is about one million, while Minneapolis/St. Paul have a combined population of close to one-half million, although many more people live in the sprawling suburbs that surround the cities proper.
Munich has a dense, extensive, and robust public transportation system. Its high-capacity backbone consists of the U-Bahn, a subway system of six lines, and the S-Bahn, a collection of suburban trains consisting of twelve spokes that join in the city center to form a single trunk line. These trains are usually fast and punctual (the U-Bahn more so than the S-Bahn). The stations and trains are clean and safe. Although the system sees heavy use and trains can get crowded during peak hours and football games, overcrowding on a scale comparable to the Tokyo subways is very rare. With an extensive streetcar and bus network supplementing the U- and S-Bahn, almost any place in the city and most of the surrounding towns can be reached from the public transportation network. In addition, bicycle paths are available along most streets as another alternative to car travel.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have no real subway system. The transit system for this metropolitan area consists chiefly of a bus system which provides good coverage within the city limits and connects busy areas like the downtowns and the U of M campuses. The city had a streetcar network but this was dismantled in the 1950s because a bus system was thought to be more economical. Rail seems to be making a comeback, however, with the recent construction of a light rail line (a sort of compromise between streetcar and subway) with another line currently under construction and a third in planning. Bicycling is especially prominent in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Bike paths are common and all buses and trains are outfitted with bike racks. Biking is especially popular among university students, who (unlike in Munich) usually live within short biking distance of campus. In the suburbs, however, transit coverage is usually spotty and limited to commercial centers. Because of this and the sheer geographic sprawl of the suburbs, residents there are often left with car travel as the only practical option.
It’s been interesting to look at how two different countries, or two different cities, solved the fundamental problem of getting people from one place to another. It’s a sign of how far modern society has come with this task when I can step into a train in one place, step out fifteen minutes and ten kilometers later, repeat this daily with hundreds or thousands of other people and not even give it a second thought most of the time.