The German disease – What is it? Do we suffer from it?


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:

  1. Cities which abandoned trams, in favour of U-Bahn and S-Bahn saw an overall drop in transit ridership.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

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4 Responses to “The German disease – What is it? Do we suffer from it?”

  1. David Says:

    BC suffers from many diseases, German Disease is just one of them.

    Something I’ve noticed is that studies of Metro Vancouver residents show high levels of support for gold-plated transit systems.

    In stark contrast is the reality that once those systems open the ridership is significantly lower than the studies predicted.

    The answer lies in the fact that metro systems need to be fed by other systems. Even the most ardent SkyTrain supporter isn’t going to ride if it means taking a bus to a station, transferring to rail, and then transferring again to a bus.

    People do not like riding buses. People really do not like transferring. People hate transferring more than once.

    I read through the official BC Liberal reply to your questions. They project transit ridership doubling by 2020 in one corridor. They conveniently forget to mention that they expect private vehicle traffic to increase substantially in the same time frame.

    I also think it’s “funny” because the corridor that they say will get double the transit ridership essentially has none right now. Double or even triple nothing and you still have zilch.

  2. ngwright Says:

    I don’t think an entire city can get this disease, but I’ve seen symptoms in many people I know. And for the most part, they’re smart enough to know better.

    There is a disproportionate number of stories about crime and violence associated with buses and skytrain even though most of these incidents don’t happen on transit (and would thus not be transit related crimes). It creates a perception that the system is unsafe, which keeps people off of it. Particularly people who feel more vulnerable – parents, women and seniors. Especially late at night.

    Its really unfortunate.

    Also you hear from people who say they won’t ride the bus because the people who ride smell bad or look sickly. There are no more bad smells or germs on a bus than anywhere else, and my blood boils whenever i hear this lame excuse.

    Most of my experiences with transit have been positive, and besides the odd delay, the benefits for me have far outstripped the drawbacks.

    I would also surmise that most people who choose to ride transit regulary feel the same way I do. The complaints largely come from those who would rather be driving and are forced to ride a bus the odd time.

  3. David Says:

    I agree that transit has an undeserved bad reputation. I ride SkyTrain every day. Sure there are a few questionable passengers, but I encounter far more off transit property than in the stations or trains.

    No the entire city doesn’t have German Disease. A few people at the Provincial Government level is all it takes for misinformation and blatantly falsified documents to be presented as fact.

    There are really only two possibilities. Either the BC Liberals (and some in the NDP) believe that strategies which have failed everywhere else will work in BC or they know they won’t and are pushing road building because they personally and collectively gain more from it than they would from other approaches. They’re either too stupid or too corrupt to govern us. Not much of a choice if you ask me.

  4. zweisystem Says:

    Let us not forget, the term “The German disease” refers to a transit system that has ‘show case’ metro or light metro systems and when the vast majority of transit customers include the poor (with subsidized fares), the elderly (who have subsidized fares) and students (who have subsidized fares). When the public transit is regarded as a part of the ‘social network’, it tends to be run down, which certainly; doesn’t attract customers.

    In Germany, in the early to mid 70’s, saw an alarming decrease in transit patronage and transit managers took action and succeeded.

    Despite the hype and hoopla about transit ridership, TransLink doesn’t disclose how ridership is calculated, nor has TransLink ever state how many cars it has taken off the road. As there is no independent audit of transit ridership, any figures given by TransLink, must be taken with a grain of salt.

    To date TransLink has never had meaningful discussions with transit customers, rather a decision is made and they use highly paid spin doctors to tell transit customers what to expect. The result is the public transit system is largely becoming disconnected from transit users and using the car, in many instances is just easier.

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