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.