Living in a Culture of Public Transportation
Public transport is one of the biggest differences between where I live now in Germany and where I came from in the US. I have not driven a car in just under 4 years. It isn’t like there are not cars here or it wouldn’t occasionally be nice to have one, but Germany is more of a culture of public transport. What does this mean to daily life?
What Builds a Culture of Public Transport
Germany has some pretty restrictive zoning laws which keep the cities compact. This makes public transport viable and keeps the systems simple while still serving a large group of people. This is true in big cities as well as small towns. It is hard to think of something the size of Munich being compact, but density wise it is.
Driving is expensive. To get a license from scratch requires near 2000 euros worth of classes and practical. Parking can be expensive and sometimes hard to find. Cities here do not have a parking lot in front of every store. Lastly gas is expensive. Depending on the exact exchange rate it hovers between 8-10$ a gallon. Think about that the next time you complain about filling up.
Bikes are Far More Common
Cities with not a lot of parking seem to just ooze bicycles. From a time perspective bikes can be actually faster than public transport especially at night when the time to wait for the next one can be fairly long. Certain streets here are assigned as bike priority streets. So while there are cars on it occasionally it is the major through way for the bike riders heading in and out of town. The morning and evening commutes can be just as congested here as on the beltway at home, though the bicyclists are much better at keeping moving and not having accidents.
In a town full of students, price is an issue. In Freiburg it is 2.10 Euro for a single ride anywhere in the system and 45euro or so for a monthly pass. So maybe a tank and a half of gas at home? I don’t think the cost is that bad remembering what gas used to cost me at home not to mention car maintenance and road rage headaches. A lot of students ride their bikes anyway.
Dictated by the Tram Schedules
One of the interesting side effects of being in a public transportation culture is that a lot of social activities are dictated by the tram schedules and routes. My favorite Irish Pub has a pub quiz every Monday night. The last trams of the night leave the center of town at 12:30am so the pub quiz has to end by 12am or so. It can go from full to empty in minutes as that last tram time approaches. This is especially true in the winter when bike riding is less fun.
A quite common excuse to leave somewhere is “I’ve got to go now or I will miss the tram.” This is acceptable and normal. A friend of mine has an app on his phone that hooks into the transit system as well as GPS and tells him not only where the nearest stop is but also when the next tram in a specific direction is coming.
Delivery Services and Alternate Transport
There are times when public transport doesn’t cut it. The hardware stores and Ikea are both on bus routes. Going out there with a bike is even less appropriate when you need furniture. I do have several friends with cars so I am not perfectly trapped, but still it can limit the buying. Although the Ikea bus is a sight with people bringing stuff home.
The other side of this is that delivery services are more common here. Be prepared to be there from 8am-12am to wait for your purchases though. On the other hand the last time we did go out to Ikea we noticed that you can rent bikes with large trailers by the hour. Pedal your stuff home and take it back.
I live in the end of town that also has Freiburg’s stadium. The stadium has no parking on grounds. The side streets are also cut off. The vast majority come to and from on the trams. On game days trams run to the stadium from the train station through the center of town every few minutes for hours before the game, all of them packed. The reverse happens after a game. A number of trams park at the end stop and line up to fill up and move off as thousands of drunken alternatively cheering and grieving fans pour out from the stadium. It is a carefully controlled chaos that is far better than I remember any concert in the US running.
Of course there is a general impact on the environment having fewer cars and more people on public transport. Germany can easily be described as on the edge of being nutsy with the environmental stuff. Freiburg definitely so.
The flip side of this is definitely that the environment has more of an impact on the people. Rain is more annoying if you ride your bike or even have to walk to and wait for the tram. In the winter you can enjoy the sniffling chorus on the tram as half of the city is blowing their nose in an enclosed area. When it snows and it dreadfully cold the bike riders reduce (thought some still are there) and fit into the trams.
What does this mean for Expats and Travelers?
- If you are in a reasonably sized city you probably do not need a car.
- Ask if one of your new friends has a car for occasional trips.
- If you are moving from the US or Canada and staying long term in Germany check to see if your home license can be exchanged without classes for a German one. German ones last for life and this option goes away once you have lived here for an amount of time. Some states have better exchange deals than others. It is worth doing if the exchange is easy, even without a car. Check your local Amt.
- When buying big stuff think about the extra cost for delivery and who might be home all day to sign for it.
- Check out your daily routes, decide if you can use a bike.
- If you buy a bike, get a good lock (two is better).
- Learn the biking rules, a friend got a 15euro ticket for riding the wrong way down a street.
- Every local transit system should offer monthly passes. If you are going to buy one every month look into an “Abo” which gives you a discount if you subscribe to them instead of just getting them from the machine each month.
- Know the schedule of the trams for your favorite stops. It sucks to run to the stop and miss a train by 2 seconds and have to wait for the next one.
- If you buy tickets to a special event or concert, check or ask if they can be used as transport passes. This is often the case.
The transport systems here are one of the big reasons I came to Germany and why I enjoy living here. No more road rage or driving stress and I can still get to nearly every nook of the country without a car.
Drink it Down » Grounded Traveler
April 15, 2012 @ 5:09 pm
[…] Even more so here than in the US. Population density is higher, we walk outside more and ride public transport all packed together and then there is the thing with opening windows. This past winter I noticed […]
Atlanta Highway Roadtrip » Grounded Traveler - Expat Adventures in Germany
November 26, 2011 @ 3:17 pm
[…] a car for three and a half years before going back to the US in June. Germany has such wonderful public transport that I don’t need to drive. I ride my bike, walk and use trains here. So being on the road, […]
A Boy and His Bike » Grounded Traveler - Expat Adventures in Germany
November 6, 2011 @ 1:40 pm
[…] fix than to buy a new one.” I am not totally stranded though. Thankfully there is wonderful public transport in Freiburg, but it is still sad. I bought the bike during the first summer that I was here, which […]
Bicycle Commuter » Grounded Traveler
April 15, 2011 @ 7:55 pm
[…] is a follow on to my article on the Culture of Public Transportation. In a routine where we have to go back and forth to work, there are commuters and thus a rush hour […]
Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures
April 15, 2011 @ 7:23 am
This all sounds quite a bit like NYC, though I realize it’s an anomoly for the U.S. Public transit rocks (though we love to bitch about it), you can get anything delivered if you’re willing to pay for it and they’re adding bike lanes faster than you can imagine (which has acutally been fairly controversial lately). I don’t own a car and don’t miss having one at all!
April 15, 2011 @ 7:02 pm
NYC is definitely a public transit anomaly in the US, but a great one. Everyone bitches, especially about public transit. This seems to be just in the nature of things. New York is the best transit system that I have ever been on, including Europe. Being on an island kept it from spreading out, making it actually feasible to build a decent system. I hadn’t heard about the bike lanes. Do cars/taxis/trucks respect them? I remember crossing streets where even the stoplights don’t seem to be honored. Not sure if I would feel ok riding in a marked off lane. What is the controversy?
April 15, 2011 @ 6:05 am
I have always loved the public transport so common in Europe. It’s just so smart to build an extensive mass transit system because it helps everyone in the long run. When I was living in Dresden, though, I was completely amazed at how many people had cars! Billions! I would ride the street car to class every day – and of course they had an extensive street car system – and there were cars just packed on the roads beside us. Why? I know cars give you freedom, but I’d rather take mass transit any day of my life. I live in the northeast of the US, where there is more mass transit than anywhere else in my country. I use the train system a lot, but I still need a car for going short distances. Like you, I haven’t driven in a long time because I’m living overseas now. I’m a little afraid that by the time I go back, I won’t remember how to drive!
April 15, 2011 @ 6:58 pm
I imagine there were fewer cars than it seemed, just because they were packed into smaller streets. Considering the population density, it could be worse. I’m with you though, most days I am perfectly happy on public transport and bike. It is only when I need to get to one of the parts of town without transport system that it gets annoying.
I’m sure you will be fine remembering how to drive. Just take it easy the first few days.
April 10, 2011 @ 2:17 am
Your line about Germany being on the edge of nutsy with the environmental stuff cracked me up! I do love my car and the convenience it provides, but there are definite downsides to owning a car. I’m looking forward to the benefits of riding a bike almost daily, although I do have a small fear of getting accidentally run over by a car.
April 11, 2011 @ 8:26 am
Freiburg is really safe when it comes to bikes. There are streets where bikes have right of way and the occasional car just has to go slowly. There are so many bikes that the drivers get used to it.
April 8, 2011 @ 10:19 pm
Wonderful post. I continue to be amazed every time I travel to Europe how easy it is to get around without a car. You can get just about everywhere without the hassles of driving. That being said, public transportation is increasing in the US, slowly but surely and many more areas are possible to visit without a car than in the past. We do have a long way to go though to even begin to catch up with Europe. I am lucky to live in an area (Boston) with good transit (not that we don’t complain about the service) and have ZipCar, an hourly rental service when a car becomes necessary. I love the idea of renting the bike with large trailer. Was that sponsored by IKEA? Most of the time, I can carry everything I buy in bike baskets, but that option would be great for large items. Thanks again for the post, really enjoyed it.
April 7, 2011 @ 9:50 am
Being from Canada I’ve always had a car and thought I would miss it in Germany, but the public transport is so much better here than it was in my city, it hasn’t been an issue at all. Bikes are not super popular in Stuttgart where I live (I’m told it’s because it’s a hilly city) but I know they are in other places in Germany and I love this idea. I’m fortunate that my finance has a car which comes in handy for hiking on the weekends, but for day to day life it’s amazing that a car really is not necessary.
April 8, 2011 @ 7:04 pm
Sounds like you guys have some of the best of both worlds. As much as I love my bike, it would be nice to have a car sometimes. For example to go explore stuff like your Aalen post.
Thanks for commenting.
April 6, 2011 @ 9:20 pm
Great post! Again, the opposite is true here 🙂 When I first moved to Texas as an exchange student, of course I didn’t have a car. If and when I wanted to go anywhere, I usually was able to find someone with a car to go with me. But once in a while it was just a bunch of the exchange students venturing out… telling people we took the bus to the mall got a good laugh out of class mates 🙂
April 8, 2011 @ 8:18 am
Hah. Yeah in some places trying to get to the mall on the bus is definitely an adventure in itself.
I was trying to explain to a British friend about why the US has a geography that encourages cars. My example was there are places in Texas where you can fit all of England and not cover more than a few towns. I’ve actually never been to Texas (unless the Dallas airport counts), but my dad has talked about being about to drive for hours on a dead straight highway and see neither town nor car.
April 8, 2011 @ 9:04 pm
I know, it’s hard to explain the distances here…. That’s why we usually take friends from Europe who visit on a roadtrip 🙂 That way they see that it can be literally hours before your see houses again on these Texas highways.
April 9, 2011 @ 3:38 pm
Cool. The distance thing can go both ways. Americans are used to the country being so big and think of Europe being tiny. Ok, it is smaller but just because London and Freiburg and Paris are all in Europe does not mean you can do day trips from one to the other.
What do your friends think about the large empty spaces?
April 9, 2011 @ 6:36 pm
It’s true. Americans often underestimate how long it can you to get from one place in Europe to another. Compared to here it’s still fairly quick though I think. My friends? Haven’t had that many visit so far unfortunately, but the ones that have been here tend to agree with me that it’s crazy that there can be NOTHING for a whole hour of driving. Always reminds me of that old movie, Doc Hollywood 🙂
April 6, 2011 @ 9:03 pm
Public transportation is one of the many things I loved about living in New York City, and it made the transition to the public transport here in Germany pretty easy. (I mean really, if you can figure out the chaos of the NYC subways, you can figure out just about any transportation system).
Another plus that I enjoy is that when you go out to a bar/restaurant/party, you can enjoy a few glasses of your favorite (alcoholic) beverage without having to worry about getting behind the wheel of a car or assigning someone to be the designated driver. 🙂
April 8, 2011 @ 8:12 am
Mmmm New York City. One of the few places in the US that has decent transit. It feels almost European in that respect.
Thanks for mentioning the designated driver aspect. I meant to talk about that, but it got tossed in editing. I feel a lot less hesitation about going out with friends and drinking a bit than I do at home. Sure I drink more here because of it, but no worries about having to get home.
April 6, 2011 @ 8:07 pm
I think the German transportation system is very efficient. You can go from point A to point B in, for example, Berlin within minutes, you can look up the times online and you don’t have to speak German to find your way around.
April 8, 2011 @ 8:09 am
Thanks for the comment. You are right, in most places even German isn’t required.
April 6, 2011 @ 7:42 pm
We lived without a car in DC thanks to public transportation and bikes. It was a great lifestyle, although the metro cars do seem like “sickness tubes” certain times of the year. Unfortunately we’re in an area now where there’s little public transportation, but thankfully more access to safe bike trails and sidewalks!
Debbie - European Travelista
April 6, 2011 @ 6:36 pm
Love taking public transportation while in Europe but it does take some getting used to for us Americans especially if you’re from an area that doesn’t have subways. Matching timing between trains and buses is very important. I make sure to do this when traveling in San Francisco ( I live in the East Bay)via BART.
I also enjoy driving but only out in the country where it is more difficult getting around other ways.
April 6, 2011 @ 7:57 pm
Hi Debbie. You are right, the mesh of timing between trains and buses is a trick. I avoid that in town by only needing to use the tram. The Bay Area has a fair transport system for a US city as I remember, though I have only been on it once.
April 6, 2011 @ 6:04 pm
I’ve been reading your stuff for a while now, and since this post was Freiburg centric, it seems as good as any to ask. I lived in Freiburg for a while in early 2009. Since your timeframe isn’t so terribly different than that, I was wondering if at some point you might do a post on what has changed in Freiburg culturally, construction, etc. since you have been there? It might be interesting for you to reflect upon and, well, it lets me find out what has happened the past couple of years!
April 6, 2011 @ 7:50 pm
Hi Matthew. I was then certainly here when you were around. Thanks for the comment and the post idea. I’m not sure exactly how to write that but I will take a look.
April 6, 2011 @ 5:50 pm
I’ll be honest – public transportation is one of my favorite things about Europe! I absolutely love public transportation and will never rent a car if I don’t have to. There are lots of great benefits to them as you mentioned.
By the way, I think of you every weekend when I watch the soccer highlights from the weekend and see the results from the German Bundesliga. Always interested in how Freiburg did.
April 6, 2011 @ 7:47 pm
Hi Jeremy. Yeah so many people mention the public transport in Europe. It is a common theme among Americans.
Ha, you are a better German than I am perhaps. I tend to ignore football. I do know that Freiburg is staying in the upper league, which is good for them. Thanks for thinking of us.
April 6, 2011 @ 2:36 pm
I love how easy it is to get around by public transit here – not just within cities, but also between cities. There are very few places you can get in the US by public transit, but here you can get almost anywhere that way. I never feel trapped by not having a car. If we have to move back to the US, it’s one of the three things I will miss the most!
April 6, 2011 @ 7:46 pm
Oo, what are the other two?
Thanks for the comment. I have been on the trams once in Heidelberg, but I don’t remember much about them. I do remember how well it is linked to nearby cities. Freiburg can’t boast that as well.
April 6, 2011 @ 8:01 pm
Vacation time & health care.
By the way, I subscribed to this entry and the comments are coming to my email unformatted – I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like that or if there’s anything you can do about it, but in case it’s not supposed to be that way I thought I should mention it! 🙂
April 8, 2011 @ 8:08 am
You are the second person to mention that. The next time I sit down to work on the technical aspects instead of just writing, I will look at it. Thanks for the heads up.
April 6, 2011 @ 10:28 am
Great post! At home, I LOVE driving but the idea in Italy totally freaks me out… it doesn’t help that there doesn’t seen to by traffic rules here!
Florence is getting much better with public transport as they have finally (3 years late) introduced the first of 3 tram lines. Bikes are very common for the city center. That was something I really enjoyed in Germany actually was both the number of bikes and the metro system (I was in Munich). A city with a good metro/train system makes me appreciate it so much more!
April 6, 2011 @ 7:44 pm
Hi Annie. I remember Florence as being a city that I walked around. But as a tourist I had plenty of time, so I can imagine how painful it might be without transit. There is a bus system though I thought. Munich has a pretty good network. I was there a few weeks ago and had fun riding around in the subway.
Fully agree, as a traveler and as a resident a good public transit system goes a long way to making a city easier to use.
April 6, 2011 @ 1:56 am
I also loved the train system in Germany. I shamefully comment on your post as we begrudgingly purchase a second car for our two person family. Work dictates that we both require a car; not just to get there, but to get around during work. We are not happy about that and feel it’s a step backwards. Canada also has a lot to learn about commuting and making life work without cars! Cheers!
April 6, 2011 @ 7:42 pm
Canada has some of the same geographic issues as the US in that regard. I understand your feeling of it being a step back, but as long as you understand why you are getting it and not just because everyone else has one, you are one (giant?) step forward.
April 5, 2011 @ 11:36 pm
Europe and Europeans seem to get this right so much better than Americans. It’s a shame that the US was pretty much built for cars because I really think it impacts the culture. Change can be very hard to make when initial design is flawed…I would never want to live in a place where I had to get around by car.
April 6, 2011 @ 7:39 pm
Yes, the US could have built its cities better, but the wide open geography doesn’t help. In much of the south cities developed directly out of farmland. This meant stuff started out spread out, the distances between people as well as from city to city being far greater. Without much of a history of marauders and neighboring armies, there was never an urge to cluster in cities. One of the things that public transport needs is those clusters, otherwise you get a busstop for an entire subdivision that is half a mile from houses and noone will use it. The spiral begins like this. Because cars are popular, so they beget parking lots and large roads which keep things spread out. Congestion of traffic gets people to move further out in hopes of escape. At least this is what I have seen in the South where i grew up. Some cities are working on recentralizing and revitalizing those centers. This will help a little bit.
The car culture as you say will be difficult to change. States get money from taxes. Roads need to be built anyway (if not as many). Car dealerships, mechanics, businesses (who aren’t near public transport), construction, manufacturers of both cars and parts all have an interest in keeping (or increasing) cars. High gas prices help in some way, but cause other changes that may not be desired. Oh BTW the transport thing as it relates to Urban Design is one of my hobbies. Do you believe that Raleigh-Durham, the last I heard, is attempting to put in light rail, but that it won’t go to the airport. (Umm one of the few places that it would REALLY help for the least money.)
April 5, 2011 @ 2:22 pm
I used to drive everywhere, now I take public transport. I’m Canadian and can’t say I miss driving.
April 5, 2011 @ 8:04 pm
Me neither. Well I don’t miss driving, but I do miss a warm dry car sometimes. I will survive. Thanks for dropping by.
April 5, 2011 @ 3:14 am
I miss taking public transportation so much. Especially with the price of gas so high in the US (well, it’s not at $8/gallon but only $3.75) compared to what it usually is, I’m not enjoying my 45-minute commute to work every morning.
That’s the beauty of Europe. Public transportation is so much more efficient and convenient.
April 5, 2011 @ 8:01 pm
Thanks for the comment. Wow even $3.75 seems high to my memory. I wasn’t in the US when it went so high a few years ago. And those 45 minute commutes I know well. They are a really nice way to listen to the radio, but not a whole lot else. Luck to you. Any chance on taking the metro?
April 4, 2011 @ 8:11 pm
A subject close to my heart. Love your post! And yeah, I’ve come to think of trams as “sickness tubes.”
April 5, 2011 @ 7:58 pm
Thanks. Yeah,in the winter the trams do definitely end up being incubation tubes. Though riding around in the freezing cold and breathing into the same scarf isn’t a lot better. Ahh such is one of the prices.