The Secret Behind Germany’s Efficient Public Transport

Hallo, wie geht’s dir?

At least now I got your attention.

Hallo, wie geht’s dir?translates to “Hello, How are you?” in German, which is a fitting start to this article because the Deutschland public transportation system reflects the warm nature of the European country’s people.

The German public transportation system is efficient, reliable, fast, and comfortable, covering regions located inside the major cities and interconnecting them to the smaller towns.

In major cities, citizens have a plethora of public transport options, which are all reliable. In contrast, residents have at least bus transport to go about their daily activities in small towns.

The public transport system in the major towns is designed to integrate the different modes of transport: High-speed trains, metros, buses, trams, and licensed taxis.

The metros (subways, tube) are referred to as the U-Bahn, while the S-Bahn is a suburban train system that only goes below ground in the city centre.

Subway in Munich, Germany. The country has an efficient public transport system where different modes of transport work cohesively. {Image Source: The Anxious Traveller}
Subway in Munich, Germany. The country has an efficient public transport system where different modes of transport work cohesively. {Image Source: The Anxious Traveller}

Regional trains, on the other hand, are referred to as RB (Regional Bahn) or RE (Regional Express), while Intercity trains are popularly known as ICE (Intercity-Express) or IRE (Inter-region Express).

Is Public Transport in Germany Free?

No, public transport is not free in Germany.

However, fare prices in Germany are relatively low and affordable compared to other countries in North and West Europe.

For instance, it is much more affordable to travel via public means in Munich and other major German cities than Paris, Zurich, and London.

Public transport in Germany is also so efficient that it is cheaper boarding public transport than the cost of operating your car.

Therefore, public transport is an obvious choice for residents of major cities when economic considerations are at play.

In August 2019, Berlin made public transport free for all school-going children.

In the plan, children above the age of six can access free transport across the different modes even if they do not attend a school in the city as long as they present their school ID.

The S-Bahn in Berlin. The city made public transport free for all school-going children in August 2019. {Image Source: The Local}
The S-Bahn in Berlin. The city made public transport free for all school-going children in August 2019. {Image Source: The Local}

In other cities and towns, public transport is also cheap for students as it is subsidized to help them spend the least amount of their resources on transportation.

German public transport authorities are always looking at ways to make it even more affordable for all residents to move around.

On the other hand, the German government is mulling over scenarios at which public transport can be made free to help combat air pollution (© Deutsche Welle).

Car releasing emissions into the air. Germany is considering making public transport free to combat environmental pollution. {Image Source: M. Murat via DW}
Car releasing emissions into the air. Germany is considering making public transport free to combat environmental pollution. {Image Source: M. Murat via DW}

Pricing For the Different Modes of Transport

The pricing for bus, tram, and subway transport is almost similar, meaning that a resident can choose which mode best suits their needs.

Single bus, tram, and subway trips usually cost a commuter between €1 and €2 while commuters fork out between €80- €90 to acquire monthly travel cards.

On the other hand, high-speed trains are a bit pricy compared to the bus, tram, and subway transport, especially for busy routes.

A German speed train. Speed train transport is a bit costlier than bus, tram, and light rail transport across the country's major cities. Image Source: {D. Bockowoldt via DW}
A German speed train. Speed train transport is a bit costlier than bus, tram, and light rail transport across the country’s major cities. Image Source: {D. Bockowoldt via DW}

For instance, a trip between Munich and Berlin comes at a premium, especially if a commuter purchases a ticket early in the morning or on the same day they plan to travel.

However, if a commuter plans to travel to a major city from another major city, such as Munich and Berlin, during off-peak hours, they could purchase a ticket for as little as €20.

Monthly Ticket Card

Residents of major cities like Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Cologne have the option of acquiring a monthly ticket card that covers bus, tram, and rail services.

In Berlin, the monthly travel card covers ferry services as well.

Prices for the Monthly Ticket Card in Different Cities

  • Munich €66
  • Cologne €91
  • Berlin €81
  • Frankfurt €89
  • Hamburg €83

Modes of Transport

The major cities incorporate the use of four unique types of public transport.

The fastest and most commonly used is the rapid transit system that marries five metro systems (U-Bahn) dedicated to cover the city centre and thirteen above S-Bahn systems that snake underground the city centre and above ground in and beyond the suburbs.

An interesting aspect of the German public transport system is that buses are a convenient way to travel at night. After all, they are cheap and readily available compared to trams which are not flexible because they are confined to a predetermined line.

U-Bahn (Subway/Tube)

Germany’s public transport system is advanced, meaning that most of Germany’s metropolitan areas have a metro system known as the U-Bahn. They run underground in central regions and rise to ground level when they close in on exiting the central areas.

The subways operate frequently (every five to fifteen minutes) while the lines are organized orderly and denoted by a “U” followed by the corresponding number.

The Hamburg U-Bahn (subway) type DT4 is denoted by the letter "U" followed by a corresponding number. Image Source: {Wikipedia}
The Hamburg U-Bahn (subway) type DT4 is denoted by the letter “U” followed by a corresponding number. Image Source: {Wikipedia}

S-Bahn (Suburban commuter rail)

This particular railway runs within the city centre through to the suburbs and nearby towns.

The S-Bahn is denoted by the letter “S”.

In this instance, trains travelling from the city centre through to the outskirts work seamlessly in the bigger cities, including Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Mainz, and Cologne.

In the largest cities, the S-Bahn operates almost similar to the metro system, such that it is relatively frequent (every 20-30 mins).

An S-Bahn train operating in Nuremberg, Germany. {Image Source:  Wikipedia}
An S-Bahn train operating in Nuremberg, Germany. {Image Source: Wikipedia}

After making several stops within and around the city centre, the train snakes its way towards the suburbia.

Interestingly, the S-Bahn is busier on weekends, especially Sundays and holidays, compared to weekdays.

According to a research paper published by Andersen, a software development company, dubbed The Secret to the Success of Digitalizing Public Transport in Germany, one of the ways Big Data is being applied in German public transport is through ticket price automation.

Paper tickets are giving way to electronic tickets with a more convenient payment process. In addition, Germany has been using electronic tariff management for several years. Districts and suburbs of big cities are divided into zones, and the fare depends, among other things, on how many zones the passenger crosses, how many transfers they do, and what types of transport they use. If you calculate the fare on your own, you can easily make a mistake. Special software solutions do the necessary calculations for passengers.

ANDERSEN REPORT: The Secret to the Success of Digitalizing Public Transport in Germany

The research paper by Andersen also shows that Big Data in Germany is also being used to create navigation technologies that help commuters make informed transport decisions.

There are special applications that provide passengers with the necessary information about transport, its route, or changes in the schedule. Such programs use digital navigation. The simplicity of the apps is captivating, which makes people prefer public transport over private cars or taxis.

ANDERSEN REPORT: THE SECRET TO THE SUCCESS OF DIGITALIZING PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN GERMANY

Bus Transport

Bus stops in Germany are denoted by a capital H.

One aspect of Germany’s bus transport system is that the bigger the city is, the higher the number of bus systems.

A bus operating in a German city. Bus transport is a popular mode of movement in the European country. {Image Source: DW}
A bus operating in a German city. Bus transport is a popular mode of movement in the European country. {Image Source: DW}

Berlin, for instance, has multiple bus systems that operate simultaneously and also runs a night bus service, same as other big cities.

Smaller towns, on the other hand, operate under the GermanRail system.

According to an article published by Intelligent Transport in December 2020, Germany is gearing towards trialling much more advanced autonomous buses in Mannheim and Friedrichshafen after research showed that commuters have not warmed up to existing autonomous buses because they are operated at low speed leading to longer driving times.

The project being undertaken by the Karlsruher Institute for Technology (KIT) and the RABus Consortium relied on Big Data to draw its conclusions which are now being used as a premise to launch the much more advanced autonomous buses.

The idea is to trial the autonomous buses in the two cities (Mannheim and Friedrichshafen) before other suitable sites in the country are identified.

The State Ministry of Transport will finance the project to the tune of €7 million.

The project aims to have a working system in place by 2023.

Tram (Streetcar or Straßenbahn/Trambahn)

Trams, also known as “streetcars,” run on rails placed on roads and regularly stop within city centres. In Germany, bus stops have been combined with tram stops; however, the tram stop section is usually visibly legible as it is indicated on a red background.

Tram operating in Berlin, Germany. Trams are a popular means of public transport in Germany
Tram operating in Berlin, Germany. Trams are a popular means of public transport in Germany just like in the 1950s when this particular mode of transport was preferred by many commuters in Germany. {Image Source: Manfred Sommer Flickr}

Interestingly, tramways were the primary mode of urban transport in Germany up until 1960, when buses became the dominant mode of transportation. However, tramways began reappearing in the 1980s and slowly regained favour.

By the 1990s, tramways had become a modern & urban means of transport.

Various researchers have attributed this to the need to adapt what worked before and tailoring it to suit current needs.

According to a research paper dubbed Monitoring travel patterns in German city regions with the help of mobile phone network data, tram transport has benefited immensely from the analysis of mobile phone data to understand commuter behaviour and patterns, which in turn draws useful insights that help improve public transport.

The idea to use phone location data for monitoring purposes is not new. Scholars and engineers in the automotive sector have conducted so-called mobile phone travel surveys for quite some time. Initially, such studies focused on enhancing in-car navigation devices with real-time traffic data. Nowadays, real-time traffic information is used in many advanced routing and navigation applications on various devices. Other disciplines have picked up on these new possibilities to learn more about individual travel behaviour.

RESEARCH PAPER: Monitoring travel patterns in German city regions with the help of mobile phone network data

Light Rail (Die Stadtbahn)

The light-rail system which serves some German cities is also referred to as “Stadtbahn.”

The Stadtbahn concept combines regular and special streetcars that run through underground tunnels to boost the system’s speed by bypassing vehicular traffic.

The Stuttgart Stadtbahn. {Image Source: Wikiwand}
The Stuttgart Stadtbahn. The Stadtbahn moves on its own railbed to avoid being caught up in road traffic {Image Source: Wikiwand}

Contrary to a regular tram, the Stadtbahn moves on its own railbed to avoid being caught up in road traffic.

In cities without “true” U-Bahn services like Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Düsseldorf the Stadtbahn represents a much cheaper alternative than constructing an entire underground system like those in Munich and Berlin.

The Stadtbahn systems are denoted by the letter “U” on a blue background.

The Stadtbahn lines are separated from road traffic and tramways. One significant advantage of The Stadtbahn is that it can provide much faster service than the tram.

According to an article published in the Global Railway Review, Big Data is being used to revolutionize rail transport, including light rail in Germany, through predictive analytics that helps authorities make informed decisions based on insights drawn from these large data sets.

Big Data is being used to develop intelligent systems that predict failure, diagnose, and trigger maintenance actions.

These systems make high demands on data access and data quality and use multiple data sources to extract relevant information.

Article: big data in railway operations and maintaniance

Who’s Smarter Now?

We have learned that the German government is looking at ways to make public transport free to reduce air pollution after learning that public transport for students and children is highly subsidized.

Another major takeaway is that Germany is gearing towards trialling much more advanced autonomous buses.

Keywords “much more advanced.”

Even before Germany starts the trials, it is instrumental to remember that the German public transport system is already efficient and reliable.

Should we call Germany the smartest kid in class who always has the right answers to questions when others don’t?

In this analogy, we must ask ourselves why that is the case.

The answer is straightforward.

Germany is finding value in Big Data, hence the constant improvement.

Now compare that to a country like Kenya where the need to apply Big Data in public transport is even greater but not yet tapped.

Food for thought.

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