Earlier this month I visited Germany to explore the "future of mobility" with 14 other Americans from around the country. The trip was funded by the German Ministry of Energy and organized by a German NGO called Ecologic and their subsidiary project POCACITO (which stands for Post-carbon Cities of Tomorrow). We met with transit officials, politicians, start ups, activists and academics to learn what the Germans are doing to create a post-carbon future. The tour is an effort, of sorts, to promote diplomacy on a smaller / local scale during a time when the US administration is a bit backwards on environmental issues...and pretty much every issue for that matter. Here are five takeaways/generalizations/observations from the visit:
When it comes to car use, there are a number of similarities between Germany and the United States, after all Deutschland is the home of Porsche, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. Both countries have high vehicle ownership rates and extensive highway networks (Eisenhower credited Germany's autobahn with his desire to create the Interstate Highway System). But Germans use transit at a much higher rate, even if they live in small towns or rural areas. One study found that Germans are five times more likely than Americans to travel by mass transport, and that's after controlling for gender, age, employment, car ownership, population density, and metro area size.
German land use patterns keep development concentrated in cities and towns; suburbia doesn’t exist much (though some say it’s creeping in). Such development patterns create a much more pleasant experience when you’re in the city, as transit and land use planning are much more easily integrated with density. It also better preserves farmland and wildland. It’s a difference obvious both on the ground and in the air. Take a look at the two pictures to the right. The top is just 10 minutes outside of Frankfurt.; development is concentrated in small towns and there are no houses or development in the agricultural fields. Compare this to the exurban sprawl on multi-acre lots outside of Denver, where if you need a loaf of bread, strap in for a 20 minute ride to the store for last week's freshness. Denver may be an easy city to pick on but the problems are the same in most US metro areas.
German hospitality, food, and humor have an undeserved bad rap. I appreciated the constant offerings of Rülpswasser (burp water) und Kaffee with actual glass and ceramic drinkware, matching, and in moderate 6-8 oz servings. I don't think I saw a single plastic or paper cup the whole week. America, we can do better. And German bier was, as expected, on point and something I didn't drink enough of. ...Also whether it was humor or hospitality, I don't care -- the autonomous vehicle at the EUREF Campus (a think tank of sorts for urbanism, mobility and renewable energy) is named Emily. Intelligent? Independent? Or does she just do what she's told?
Sometimes it’s important to make a statement, even if it costs more money. Transit officials in Dresden decided to grow grass between the tram tracks, simply because it made a statement about the importance of green in a city otherwise covered in asphalt and cobble. (Of course, the ecological benefit of grass is quite small…) Other examples of this mentality include the cargo tram that supplies the Volkswagen factory (just like Willy Wonka's, white jump suits and all) that makes the electric Golf; transport via tram maybe not as cheap as a semi, but it’s quieter, and takes up less space on city streets...and assuming the electricity to power the tram comes from renewables, it is ultimately cleaner too.
Transit can be cool. It can be, because it is. The Berlin metro partnered with Adidas on a limited release of 500 pairs of sneakers that feature the same pattern used on the city’s train seats and double up as an annual transit pass embedded in the tongues of the trainers. Wear these kicks and ride free. The cheapest annual ticket available from the BVG is currently €728, the shoes cost just €180.
Also, I gotta say, there is something to be said for a more collectivist mindset. One of the marketing strategies to promote bicycling, and multi-modal transit generally, used the slogan For You | For Dresden. It struck a chord with me. And might with the millennial generation (of which I barely make/miss the cut) who tend to be more civically minded.
So there's certainly some lessons to be learned from the Germans, minus Dieselgate and das fraud with Deutchebank.