In Munich, Putting People Before Cars Makes Transit Work So Much Better

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Tram in Munich

It seems that most transit decisions in North America are made with the goal of making life easier for people in cars.

In North America, transit planning is a mess. Decisions like building a hyperloop from Cleveland to Chicago or a one-stop subway extension in Toronto in the face of sound transit planning by experts that say these decisions are ridiculous. In New York City, they arrest people for fare-jumping but let them park cars for free for months; in Toronto again (my home is in the news a lot these days) they beat up kids over a two buck ticket.

Development at the end of the line

Massive development at end of streetcar line/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0In Munich, you see what happens with sound planning and good transit. I am staying in the suburbs near a massive new residential and commercial development, with a lovely streetcar right outside the door of my hotel. It stops about six times on the way to the other end of the line at a subway stop.

streetcar in Munich

Streetcar in Munich/CC BY 2.0

I have been on this streetcar a number of times, looking out the window at the stores and buildings on either side. You can do that on a streetcar; you are on the surface, a step from grade, so if you want to get off and buy something you can. There are housing, offices and retail on either side; unlike subways with stations far apart, the development isn't just at nodes but along the entire route.

streetcar in station

Subway coming into station/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As you get closer to downtown Munich, you switch to the subway. It isn’t exactly strenuous, and there are lots of shops in the station. And there are no gates or turnstiles; it is all wide open, and works on the honour system. I bought a week’s pass and just treat it all as my personal transit system. Is there cheating? Sure, but those turnstiles and fare collectors and fancy card systems cost a lot of money.

subway car interior

Inside the old subway car/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In the subway, it feels like the cars are fifty years old, with wood and padded seats. Yet they are quiet, smooth and clearly well-maintained.

While I look out the window at the stores and restaurants, I think about the situation in North America. In New York, the subway never runs on time because they have to go slow because of signal problems and general lack of maintenance. The MTA is shutting down a main line for a while, but can’t even agree on bus lanes that might slow cars down a bit.

In California, Elon Musk wants to build tunnels, not for people but for cars because he doesn’t like getting stuck in traffic.

In Toronto, the dead mayor ordered a multibillion dollar single stop subway because he doesn’t like getting stuck behind trolleys and the live mayor just panders to the car driving crowd and insists on driving this stupid train under single family houses, when one of the most important roles of transit is to promote development along its length.

In fact, it seems that most transit decisions in North America are made with the goal of making life easier for people in cars -- Get those people who don’t drive out of the way!

subway car

Subway car/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Really, they should all just come and spend a day in Munich, and see how transit can run smoothly, how it promotes housing and development. They should see how the world works when you don’t pander to people in cars.