In the early 1960’s, when the German economy was beginning to recover from the war, Germany invested heavily in new subways (U-Bahn) and fast commuter style metropolitan railways (S-Bahn). The tram or strassebahn, which bore the brunt of providing public transit from the late 40’s, to the 60’s, was largely regarded by many as a dated or even obsolete. At the time, German planners were going to abandon most trams systems or upgrade to S-Bahn by the Millennium, but unplanned events reversed this trend. Three surprising things happened to cities that replaced trams with subways S-Bahn and buses, which made public transit policy and transportation projections go awry:
- Cities which abandoned trams, in favour of U-Bahn and S-Bahn saw an overall drop in transit ridership.
- The cost of new S-Bahn and U-Bahn construction, all but bankrupted local transit authorities, which then bled money from the rest of the transit system.
- Public transit systems were seen to be mainly used by the poor, the elderly, and students.
Collectively these events, but especially number 3, became to be known as the German Disease.
Not widely reported, except in specialist journals, the German disease was a serious threat to public transit, as many transit customers who could use the car, did; leaving the public transit system for mainly the socially disadvantaged. Public transit was seen as an appendage of the social welfare system and operated as such, further continuing the downward spiral of ridership. Flashy new subways and S-Bahns, just did not attract the ridership as projected, which caused great concern for transit planners and politicians alike, for many, they did not have a “plan B”.
With the erosion of public transit, authorities in many cities issued a diktat to transit managers, especially tram managers (trams were still thought to be obsolete); “either you increase ridership or you will lose it“. Tramway (streetcar) managers recognized that the lowly tram was the backbone of their transit system; no trams, no customers; leading to the wholesale abandonment of urban transportation. Local managers did something quite unspectacular, yet very effective; opened honest consultation with the transit user or customer. This honest and open dialog found that the average transit customer wanted, not flashy new U-Bahns or S-Bahns, but trams giving a doorstep to doorstep service: “transit customers wanted transit on the pavement, ready to use.” With subways and S-Bahns, the vast majority of transit customers had to take a bus to the rapid or express transit and again take a bus to their destination. What did ring loud and clear was the transit customer did not want to take a bus!
With this wealth of information and public input, transit managers designed and operated transit systems to best suit their customers needs. Public pressure was brought against building politically inspired, gold-plated subway schemes and S-Bahns were only planned when there was actually the ridership to warrant them. In the mid 80’s began a reversal of planning and instead of abandoning tramways, a program of tramway renewal and expansion began. The introduction of low-floor tramcars brought an almost universal mobility for all to all tram systems, which saw increased use of public transport. Cities with tramways were thought to be progressive and by the 1990’s, a marked modal shift from car to tram was clearly evident.
The German disease, saw a remarkable German cure and with much ingenuity such as ‘Bistro’ cars, party trams, and TramTrains, German transit planning is seen as one of the most progressive in the world.
The question we should ask ourselves is : “do we suffer from the German disease?” And if we do, “do our politicians have the political fortitude to rectify the situation?” Promises of more U-Passes, especially on an over stressed bus system; planning for more hugely expensive gold-plated subways, that in the end cater to very few new transit customers; and the staggering fact that 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership, first take a bus to the light-metro, indicate that the metro region has a bad case of the German Disease. Sadly, no one yet is willing to admit to this, or that there is even a problem.
What is taken for mediocrity in Europe, is considered success in Vancouver!