What we can learn from German public transit

at 12:32 PM ET, 12/04/2011

Germany has been dominating the headlines lately with the euro debt crisis, so why not look at other aspects of the country’s public policy? Like, say, transit. Lisa Margonelli points to a fascinating paper by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher comparing public-transportation policies in Germany and the United States. As it turns out, Germany has a few lessons to teach other countries — including the idea that spending more on transit doesn’t always make for better service.


A bus in Detroit, where one-third of the scheduled buses are off the road for repairs each day. (Rachel Cook/Bloomberg)
More people take buses and trains in Germany than in the United States (8 percent of all trips versus 1.6 percent), in part because German cities are more compact. Still, an interesting pattern emerges when Buehler and Pucher looked at changes in spending and ridership over the past two decades. Between 1991 and 2007, the United States boosted public-transit funding 50 percent and expanded transit miles by 20 percent. Yet trips per capita have actually declined slightly over that time. What’s more, U.S. public transportation has become ever more dependent on taxpayer subsidies — the share of expenses covered by fares dropped from 37 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2007.

Germany is a different story entirely. Over that same period, the country shrunk its public-transportation system slightly, with fewer miles for bus and light rail. And German transit agencies more than doubled fares, on average. Yet trips per capita rose by 22 percent, and fares now cover 77 percent of the system’s costs. Germany is getting more riders with fewer subsidies — indeed, per trip, Germany transit subsidies are less than one-third of those in the United States. How did that happen?

The authors argue that Germany has focused on making transit service more convenient rather than simply expanding it willy-nilly. Unprofitable routes were slashed and core routes were bolstered. In Berlin and Hamburg, some buses now come every four minutes. Cities provided monthly and annual passes that provided discounts over single-ticket fares. Agencies invested on online services — such as easily searchable timetables — and in simple things like providing bike-sharing at transit stops.

The flip side, meanwhile, is that German transit agencies have brought down their labor costs pretty dramatically since the mid-1990s, shrinking their workforce and reducing salaries. As a result of many of these moves, Buehler and Pucher argue, productivity among employees has grown six times as fast in Germany as it has in the United States. One thing to note here is that German unions have, by and large, gone along with these changes, though it’s not clear how long that will last. The head of Germany’s largest union recently called the last 10 years “a lost decade for labor,” and transit strikes are on the upswing.

The other thing Germany has done over the years is make it more of a pain to drive. The German federal government more than doubled gasoline taxes between 1990 and 2007. American drivers, by contrast, still pay some of the lowest gas taxes in the world. What’s more, local cities and regions in Germany have introduced measures like car-free pedestrian zones, limited car parking, and high parking fees to nudge people out of automobiles. And, as the authors note, German cities tend to be more compact thanks to land-use regulations — although in recent years they have started to sprawl out, much like American cities have long done.

In any case, none of these insights are especially earth-shattering, but the paper provides a fairly detailed blueprint for how to create a public transit system that’s financially sustainable.

 
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