Monday, October 7, 2002
The Train to Dachau is Pretty Nice These Days

Just got back from Germany. The transportation system there is incredible. Reading Jim Kunstler's Home From Nowhere as I traveled, I suppose I was paying extra attention to the German collective living arrangement. The comfortable trains gave me plenty of time to read.

I flew in to Frankfurt. The airport is attached to a beautifully architected train station. In the airy glass and steel space, you don't feel like you're getting on a train as much as though you're boarding an extraterrestrial vehicle. Yet, the station doesn't feel like the creepy, alienating, gigantist modern architecture that you often find in the United States. It's a nice, respectful, human-scale space. It's quiet, has lots of light and is kept clean. It feels uplifting. Compare that to the feeling you get walking in to New York's Penn Station today. Unlike us, the Germans seem to care about building a beautiful and honorable, shared public realm.

I could go on about the organization and usability of the train timetable that you find on each platform. My favorite part about it is the fact that the timetable grahpically tells you what part of the platform each type of train car will land on. In other words, when your train arrives -- and they were almost always on time -- you know that the dining car will be to your right and the smoking cars down to your left. There is a level of thoughtfulness, care and consideration in the design and organization of these timetables that I have never known in American public facilities. The sign's designer thought quite a bit about what kind of information a person standing on the platform might want, and the most efficient way to convey that information. You find this kind of design empathy throughout Germany's public realm. I don't speak a word of German but I could still easily have prepared myself to board the wheelchair accessible car of the 12:59 train to Basil had I needed it.

Every town and city in Germany is connected by commuter rail. Towns of a certain size have streetcar systems called the S-bahn. I haven't yet figured out exactly what it is about streetcars that makes them such a great form of transportation. But they are nice and seem to have a highly beneficial impact on a town. My sense is that in an area of a certain density, streetcars simply move more people, more cleanly and efficiently for less money than any other form of transportation. I know that streetcars were a vital part of the growth of Brooklyn as one of America's greatest cities after the turn of the last century. Brooklyn was a city full of "trolley dodgers." That's where the name of the Dodgers, their beloved baseball team came from. The trolley is one of the things that connected Brooklynites, brought them together, and gave them their sense of identity. Actually, the Germans feel a similar sense of affection for their Ampelmannchen -- the little Walk-Don't Walk man of East Berlin's traffic signals. Perhaps we should start calling the Yankees the Manhattan Roadkill.

For bicyclists and pedestrians, Germany is the friendliest country I have ever visited. In the town of Freiburg the intercity train drops you off near an s-bahn station where you can catch frequent streetcars to all parts of town. Attached to the s-bahn station is a bike storage facility like I have never seen before. Apparently, the town is set up so that a person can bike from their home to the train station, catch a ride to work, and safely leave their bike all day and even overnight. We saw similar bicycle facilities in every city, town and suburb we visited.

Unlike New York City, in Berlin it isn't a terrifying act of bravery to use your bicycle for transportation. Bicyclists have their own lanes and traffic signals almost everywhere. Not only that, but people actually use the lanes and obey the signals. Clearly, this following-of-the-rules is a major cultural difference between New York City and Berlin. In their respect for the authority of their traffic signals and their obedient staying within the lines of their traffic lanes, I thought I caught a glimpse of one of the cultural seeds that allowed Germany to grow into the Third Reich seventy years ago. It might be nice on the street today with everyone staying within the lines, but terrible things can happen in a culture when everyone obeys authority too much to speak out against bad authorities. Today, in the chaos, incivility and road rage of American traffic, I often wonder if our cultural fixation with independence, freedom and individual liberty and happiness is metastisizing into something dangerous as well. For what it's worth, many Germans certainly seem to think so. Keep in mind, I'm not saying that America is becoming anything like Nazi Germany. I'm saying that it's interesting to see how a culture reflects itself and is formed by its modes of transportation, its connective tissue.

Elderly women with shopping bags, businessmen in suits -- everyone rides bikes. What makes biking easiest though is the fact that Germans don't drive enormous, hulking "light trucks." Their cars are small. On your bike, you're almost always the tallest vehicle on the road. You can see over everyone and everyone can see you. One of the most popular cars we saw on the streets of Germany was the miniscule, two seat Smart Car. It's length is so small, that people can actually park it curb-to-fender in tight spots where regular cars are parallel parked.

We need this car so badly in New York City. People would love it here. Parking is the New Yorker's greatest obsession. Were everyone in Brooklyn to ditch their SUV and get a Smart Car, the number of parking spaces would immediately double. Alas, the only Smart Car that you can find in New York is, guess where? The Museum of Modern Art. How sophisticated, how urbane we New Yorkers are. We've taken the most practical and sensible urban vehicle on the market and parked it in a museum where it can be admired as a design concept. And we go visit it, slowly, in our Hummers, Expeditions and Sequioas.