EXCLUSIVE: The numerous transport challenges facing Berlin

Posted on June 6, 2016

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Main) station. All Photos by Giles Bailey
Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Main) station. All Photos by Giles Bailey
The International Transport Forum (ITF) 2016 was again held in Leipzig, Germany in May. This year’s stated theme was “Green and Inclusive Transport.” The Paris-based ITF is a specialized sister agency of the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD), focusing on transport research and the sharing of best practices across OECD members as well as more widely. The organization works across all transport modes and links transport policy to economic development and growth. It has 57 member nations. The annual ITF Summit is a focus for the organization in bringing together over a thousand researchers, media, transport and related professionals, as well as leading global politicians who work in the transport sphere.

Traveling to Leipzig, in southeast Germany, gave the author an opportunity to also visit the German capital, Berlin 120 miles to the north.

Berlin remains a most interesting and evolving major European metropolis. The city has over 3.5 million inhabitants, yet in European terms is very isolated amongst the farms and forests of eastern Germany and far from any other large city. Historically, Berlin has emerged from obscurity to become the capital of an empire, been the center of industry and revolutions, largely been razed to the ground, divided into four and then two, and then, put back together as the capital again of Europe’s largest country.

Berlin’s motto could be that, “it will be great when all of the construction is finally complete,” and this certainly applies to the world of mobility and transport. As the headquarters of businesses such as Siemens and Bombardier’s urban transportation division, the city has a long history in mobility.

Berlin streetscape with tram.
Berlin streetscape with tram.

Since its re-emergence as the German capital during the 1990s, the city has been undergoing a long and extensive process of upgrading, remodeling, and improving its transport infrastructure and undoing 50 years of the development of parallel but separate systems in the two former halves of the city.

In addition, the city is facing up to the challenges of new mobility paradigms such as car and ride sharing, the rise of urban cycling, greater sustainability and new means of payment. The transport authorities in the city also face a rapidly growing and successful city that, as well as the national capital, is a center for the innovation economy, a regional hub across central Europe, and a magnet for widespread investment and visitor growth.

The city is, unlike many large European cities, dispersed and generally low rise with in fact multiple city centers often many miles apart. While this is a legacy of its history, it raises many transport challenges. In terms of sustainable transport, the core system remains a very impressive and comprehensive “S-Bahn” or urban regional rail network of 200 route miles. These types of networks are a common feature of many German cities — but one of the unique, and very useful, features of the Berlin example is the combination of an eight-mile, elevated four-plus-track railway through the center of the city that provides frequent S-Bahn services, as well as allows regional rail services and long distance high-speed services to access the central area rail terminals. In addition, there is an orbital S-Bahn service encircling the city akin to an orbital freeway. In recent years a north-south S-Bahn, also with capacity for regional and high-speed services, has also been built in tunnels under the city.

S-Bahn service at Berlin Station.
S-Bahn service at Berlin Station.

The S-Bahn service is supported by an extensive “classic subway or metro” U-Bahn service. U-Bahn has many similarities in look and feel to the Paris Metro and certain aspects of the New York subway and uses narrow profile carriages. For a city of its size, the U-Bahn network is relatively small at 100 miles, but also faces the challenge of having been divided between East and West Berlin for 50 years while new urban centers emerged. One of the current challenges is actually using the U-Bahn to conveniently access to the (re)newed government and business core east of the Brandenburg Gate along “Unter den Linden.” A service extension is currently underway along this route to eventually provide direct access from the shopping and culture district of Alexanderplatz to the main rail station. It seems exceptionally odd that this service doesn’t already exist as in most cities this route would logically seem to be where you would start building a subway service, but this is the evolving nature of Berlin’s urbanity. There are also several seemingly odd gaps in U-Bahn coverage from the former center of West Berlin, an area that remains a major shopping, tourism and cultural center. While much work has clearly already been done on refurbishing, re-integrating and extending the U-Bahn, parts of the system still seem quite old and worn and it will need to be an ongoing focus of investment for many years to come.

Returning to heavy rail services, Berlin seems unique as a large European metropolis in having constructed an essentially new main railway station in the center of the city at the cross between the east-west and north-south S-Bahn routes. Regional and long distance train services stop at stations on either side of the new central station as well as this new multi-level fully integrated station complex.

Berlin’s “Hauptbahnhof,” which initially opened in 2006, is a truly amazing experience with high-speed and local services many meters underground arriving in tunnels, other rail services many meters up in the air on viaducts, a vast glass roof, trams, buses and taxis on the surface and extensive retail provision, as well as public space, all around the station. The station is a model for multimodal service integration.

Berlin also has the oddity of having a very extensive and well-designed tram network, but one that only covers the eastern half of the city. A legacy of West Berlin’s decision to reject surface trams for U-Bahn service and the private car in the post-war decades, the tram is now a core part of the re-emerging eastern districts. The trams, which were once one of the largest networks in the world, have been extensively renewed over the years since re-unification and are newly served via new vehicles and generally well-integrated into the public street realm.

In the former West Berlin, a network of bus services provides the majority of local transport. In addition a service of high capacity double deck operated routes operates between western hubs such as around “Zoologischer Garten” station and the new centers at Alexanderplatz and Potsdamerplatz. While frequent and well-utilized, these services don’t seem to offer the advantages of urban realm support seen by the tram network in the east. It can be expected that as Berlin works through its list of transport improvements that in the coming years the tram network will gradually be extended west and replace parts of the core bus network in the other half of the city.

U-Bahn train in Berlin
U-Bahn train in Berlin

The classic modes of public transport are only part of the mobility story in Berlin. The city has seen, and is supporting, a rapid rise in the use of urban cycling as in most German and many European cities. A local bike sharing scheme is in place, but it is relatively low profile versus such schemes in Paris, Barcelona or London, and the most common form of cycling seems to be self-owned bikes used by an impressive range of families, old and young, and for a wide-range of trip purposes. Berliners also seem to favor a style of bike that is modern, but very large, upright and robust, and thus, flexible in an urban environment for many trip purposes as opposed to the small and light racing and hybrid bikes often seen in many other cities. On some corridors, the majority of traffic seems to be by cycle, and impressively, the German city has managed to implement a wide-range of dedicated cycle lanes that fit between the roadways and pedestrian pavements. As in many European cities, cycle parking is clearly becoming an increasing issue in maintaining the growth in this mode.

A common aspect of public transport in Berlin is a very simple, relatively inexpensive and multimodal ticketing proposition. Day travel tickets cost about $8. The tickets are validated on first use and then allow access across the network. Gates are not used on the rail network and, one assumes, roving ticket inspectors assure compliance. Most users seem to have period tickets as ticket machines, while available are limited in number and show little extensive queuing. That said, the overall network seems to be very open and no evidence is apparent for a pending contactless or other such card based system.

In addition to all of this mobility innovation, Berlin is a center for car sharing. Two of the large German car manufacturers — Daimler and BMW — have a very large presence in the city via their Car2Go and DriveNow brands, respectively, in offering “free-floating” car share services. The largely Smart Car and i3, respectively, vehicles are a common site in the city. The author also noticed standalone retail sites for the Car2Go service in major shopping areas. In addition, to these services Daimler, BMW as well as Volkswagen are also extensively investigating ridesharing services and opportunities across all of Europe.

Car2Go offices in Central Berlin
Car2Go offices in Central Berlin

The story of Berlin transport cannot be told, though, without reference to the chaos of the city’s airports. The city is a showcase of investment, yet is still trying to get a modern airport into successful operation. With the closure of Templehof in 2008, the city is served by two main airports — one in the former West (Tegel) and one in the East. The East’s former airport is due to become the city’s aviation gateway and a major aviation hub for Germany, along with Frankfurt and Munich. The new air terminal along with runways and rail access — known as “Berlin-Brandenburg” — has already been “completed” in 2010, but due to safety issues and the quality of the design and construction — particularly in the new terminal — it remains closed and potentially may open in 2017, 2018 or 2019. No firm date is publically available.

So, quite incredibly for such a major capital city and business and visitor hub, users are squeezed through a completely overloaded, sub-standard, uncomfortable and poorly served set of existing facilities that in Schonefeld’s case date principally back to the days of East Germany. Even more amazingly, Schonefeld’s users can actually see the completed new airport terminal in the distance across the main runway while awaiting an opening date. When it finally opens, the new airport will also be already too small for the demand from the booming Berlin region. Much more could be written about how Berlin has ended up in this strange case without a modern airport.

Cycle Hire service in Berlin.
Cycle Hire service in Berlin.

Berlin is building for growth in the coming decades by vastly improving its transport infrastructure. The system is already very efficient and comprehensive, and vast amounts of investment have already and continue to be put in place to improve the service. Also, the new and emerging modes of mobility are also clearly in evidence. Much still needs to be done, but the city is already, generally, a showcase for good practice.

The International Transport Forum Annual Summit will return to Leipzig in late May 2017.

Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.

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