Can the U.S. hitch a ride on the German transit path?

17

Apr

Can the U.S. hitch a ride on the German transit path?

Note that kids are actually taught proper cycling in school, culminating with a police-supervised test!

From today’s (04/17/2009) ClimateWire
Saqib Rahim, E&E reporter

In Freiburg, Germany, clever city planning places 2 out of every 3 residents within 500 meters of the light rail system. Bicycle paths stretch throughout the city.

It’s the kind of setup Americans are used to hearing about transit-paradise Europe: buses and trains everywhere;, biking and walking everywhere else, and a gas tax so high it makes owning a car like having a hole in one’s wallet.

Now, as the United States reconsiders the way it does transportation — in part because its autos are blamed for choking the climate — some German researchers are pointing out that Freiburg wasn’t built in a day.

There and in other German cities, the move from cars to transit and the pedestrian lifestyle took 30 years and dozens of aggressive policies, they said in dual reports released yesterday by the Brookings Institution and the German government.

Some argue that drawing a comparison between Germany and the United States is a stretch, since the European giant is still only about the size of Montana, with less than one-third of America’s population.

But it may represent the best analogy in Western Europe to America’s transit policy landscape, since Germany has long had one of the region’s dynamic economies. The father of both the BMW and Mercedes, Germany invented the famous autobahn on which the American highway system was based.

Starting the cycle at a young age
Nevertheless, the reports say, Germans need a much smaller carbon footprint to get around for their daily business.

In 2003, Germany had about five cars for every 10 people. The United States, by comparison, had nearly eight. American passengers drive more often and farther on each trip, causing three times more carbon dioxide emissions than Germans.

When Americans take a trip that’s less than 1 mile, they’re likely to drive 70 percent of the time. But in Germany, one-third of all trips are made by bike and on foot.

Ralph Buehler, the lead author of the Brookings study and a professor of urban affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said the difference comes from decades of concerted policies by German leaders.

The efforts ranged from uniting the country’s transportation and housing departments into a single policy body to heavy gas taxes to urban reorganization that can require cars to trot as slowly, in some areas, as 4 miles per hour.

Most German children, Buehler said yesterday at the studies’ release at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., take cycling lessons by third or fourth grade, culminating with a police-supervised biking test.

Transport reform also occurred at different governmental levels, Buehler and a panel of transport experts said. While Freiburg and cities like it would come up with innovations on biking, transit and the like, information was passed up to the federal level, where the Bundestag could make decisions with regional governments.

Change is coming to the U.S., but from where?
In the United States, it still remains unclear whether transport reform will come from Washington or local governments.

On one hand, there has been support for large-scale federal projects. Yesterday, for example, the President Obama announced a major rail initiative to direct stimulus funds toward commuter and high-speed rail (Greenwire, April 16). He also said he planned to make more funding available in the future.

Washington could also make over the national transport system with a major highway reauthorization bill later this year. The expiring legislation, passed under President George W. Bush, is expiring, giving some leading Democrats and the Obama administration an opportunity to recast the country’s transit and pedestrian systems.

On the other hand, critics say high-minded initiatives from Washington can end up spinning out.

Critics have long attacked Amtrak, for example, as being an overly subsidized, underperforming mode of transit. Other detractors point out the failing financial health of most transit operators, saying the agencies receive so much cash government funding that their fundamental problem — not being profitable — is never addressed.

Still others argue that Washington is simply too far away from local travel problems to design a “one-size-fits-all” policy.

At the German Embassy yesterday, Brookings Institution metropolitan policy analyst Robert Puentes said the Bush administration took little interest in shifting transportation policy at the federal level. Meanwhile, he said, states like California and Pennsylvania took the lead.

‘People learned, and people also changed’
He also pointed to Salt Lake City and Denver as two cities that, noticing their population growth trends, have begun extending transit systems and organizing development around them.

“There’s an appetite here now in the U.S. to look overseas and to see what kind of examples we can bring back,” Puentes said.

In Germany, Buehler said, local efforts like these percolated upward. The local movements — combined with a political shift in the 1980s that birthed the German Green Party — eventually triggered federal action that moved the whole country away from autos and toward a lower-carbon transport system.

The party won the minimum share of votes to get into the German parliament on a campaign to hike the country’s gas prices to about $10 per gallon. But when they brought the idea to the Bundestag, the votes weren’t there. Instead, the Social Democrats, a larger left-of-center party, offered the Greens a tradeoff: If they wanted to raise the fuel tax, cutting Social Security taxes would make it more politically feasible.

“So individuals had more money in their paychecks, but paid more at the pump,” Buehler argued.

The bargain was reached in a tax tradeoff that was basically revenue neutral, Buehler maintained. The German government took the next step of getting the public on board, cluing people in on its intention to prioritize transit, walking and biking in cities while cracking down on cars.

The Greens’ effort got noticed by other parties in the Bundestag, which learned that the German public had an appetite for biking, hiking and transit.

“People learned, and people also changed,” Buehler said. “Even conservative parties took up the environment as an issue, because they saw you can win elections with that.”

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