After attending Innotrans, the international rail exposition in Berlin, I’ve been visiting with a colleague in a smaller German city. The plethora of transit choices is amazing. There is an extensive subway system. The tram network runs in the subway, using the stations there and then exiting to run on surface streets, often in medians reserved for transit. The even more extensive bus system has signal preemption, giving buses priority at difficult intersections.
Germany is famous in transit circles for its S-bahns. Over a hundred years ago, it was recognized that trains needed to be separated from street traffic. Far-sighted city fathers built embankments with four or more tracks running through their cities here, enabling unhindered rail connections between major and minor stations. (Note that embankments, planned with shops built right into them, don’t have the negative effects on urban life that viaducts have.)
S-bahns are the lowest level of the standard-gauge, above-ground, rail hierarchy. (Trams are often a narrower gauge.) They are thought of as connecting city centers to outlying districts. Regional trains connect cities, so there is a significantly longer spacing between stations. There are express regional trains, the RE series, and local, the RB series. At the top of the hierarchy are the intercity trains: the Intercity Express, or ICE, and the Intercity trains, the IC, which make more stops. This hierarchy, while specific to Germany, is useful in thinking through the different kinds of rail services needed in America.
What stands out most to this observer is that these systems are heavily used. Expectations on how to get around are very different from those of a typical American. Not only are transit options readily available (unlike most of the U.S.), use of transit is not associated with economic class. There is no stigma in using transit.
There is a major effort through good signage to make transit comprehensible to occasional users. Every bus stop is clearly marked and provided with a schedule. The schedules themselves are easy for residents to remember: most buses come at the same number of minutes past the hour, all day long. Larger stations have real-time departure signs, listing the route, destination and time until arrival. These features go a long way to make passengers comfortable, calming the fear of the unknown.
In the suburb where I’m staying, there is service every ten minutes with articulated 60 foot long buses. Clearly, they get heavy patronage, despite the plentiful population of cars. This indicates a strikingly different set of expectations as to how one gets around a city. Is it too late for Americas to learn from our neighbors across the seas?