Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Public Transportation in Germany: the good and the bad

Having lived in Smalltown, Wisconsin until moving to Germany, I don't have much experience with public transportation in the U.S.. In three of the four Smalltowns I lived in there were city buses, but they didn't connect neighboring towns and I don't know anyone who ever rode the city buses as an adult.

There is a train that cuts through Wisconsin, but you need a car to get to the train stop (it was an hour's drive [72 km] from my town). We have taken several groups of German exchange students by train to Chicago, but that requires first a one-hour drive from Sheboygan to downtown Milwaukee to get the train.

Basically if you don't have a car in the U.S. (except in the big cities - I have to assume public transportation is good enough there), you're stuck in the town where you live. My children attend college in Appleton, WI and Green Bay, and my parents live in Sheboygan. That is roughly 60 miles or 96 kilometers from either college and takes an hour or more by car, but there is no way for them to visit my parents without a car or hitching a ride with someone who has one.

I have mentioned many times that one of the wonderful things about life in Germany is that I can get anywhere I want to go by train or bus. I've been pondering the good and bad of train and bus travel for a while and decided that today would be the perfect day to write about it since the Deutsche Bahn engineers are going on strike tonight.

The executive summary of this post is that with public transportation, someone else does the driving, and there is not a single negative aspect of train and bus travel that can trump that one advantage (for me).

For those who want to read on, I'll start with the negatives so that I can end with the positives.

What's not so great about traveling by train and bus

  1. You have to reckon with delays for various reasons - construction, accident, downed trees after a storm, stupid people pulling the emergency stop as a prank which causes a domino-effect of delays on multiple tracks, strikes... If you're lucky you find out about these delays before you travel, but sometimes you just get stuck in a station somewhere, on a train, or at a stop. It has not happened often to me, but it happens.

  2. Travel by train takes longer than by car in many cases. Add the usual two to four traffic jams on the Autobahn, though, on a one-hour drive, and the difference really isn't that significant.

  3. You spend time waiting, which is why I always have a book with me when I travel. You get off your train and then may have to wait 20 minutes for the bus to your neighborhood. If I have to wait longer than it would take me to walk home, I walk - 2.5 miles, uphill all the way; only takes about 45 minutes, 75 if the day is hot and I stop for a beer along the way.

  4. You will, on occasion, encounter loud, obnoxious fellow passengers, which is something you don't have to deal with if you're driving alone in your car. I once had a guy opposite me sucking and slurping loudly on one piece of hard candy after another, and I was tempting to reach over and slap him repeatedly. I finally got up and changed cars.

  5. The temperature is out of your control. It can get pretty stuffy on buses or train cars on hot days, though many have air conditioning.

  6. Germs. Most people probably wouldn't think about this, but I can practically feel the filth climbing onto my skin when I have to touch anything on a train or bus, such as a bar to steady myself as the vehicle starts or stops. This probably comes partly from teaching high school students for 16 years and having to remind kids to cover their mouths when they sneeze. Seriously, kids, I have to tell you that??

  7. Stinky passengers. Some people apparently don't feel the need to clean themselves or don't have the means to, and it's possible you'll have someone sit down next to you who smells unpleasant. You always have the option of pretending you're getting out at the next stop, and just picking a new seat in an adjoining car.

  8. It is crowded at times, which may mean that you'll have to stand for a bit and wait for an open seat. This is really not the end of the world, but compared to the comfort of sitting in your own car, I have to acknowledge it as a drawback.

Then again, I once got on an empty S-Bahn headed to Herrenberg through Stuttgart.

What's GREAT about traveling by train and bus

  1. As I've said, you can get pretty much everywhere in Germany by bus and/or train. If I want to visit and explore a town for a day, I check the schedule online, buy a ticket, and go. If I drive myself to the Bahnhof instead of taking the bus, it costs me only €1,50 to park in the Bahnhof lot for 24 hours (a benefit of living in a small community - in Esslingen I think parking is €1,50 per hour!).

  2. NO STRESS! Driving here is terribly stressful (for me) at best. Parking is a royal pain in that you're unlikely to find a spot on a street, and the parking garages are tight and narrow for the kind of car we have (I think it would qualify as a mid-size car). When I take the train I don't have to worry about any of the things that make me panic while driving, and I'm not endangering others.

  3. No winter weather worries! Even in Wisconsin I was nervous as hell whenever the roads were snowy or icy, which was pretty much all winter long. Snow or ice would mean a cancelled trip if it weren't for the buses and trains.
    Yes, even that would make me cancel a car trip.
    Who knows how long it will keep snowing??

  4. I can enjoy the scenery from the train. Even the stretch from Horb to Stuttgart and back, which I take most frequently, never gets old. I can't enjoy anything when I'm driving - most definitely not the scenery.

  5. I can also enjoy a glass of wine with lunch. That may sound strange to American readers, but having a glass of wine or beer with lunch is not uncommon here. I can do without it, too, but it's nice to have the option. I would not dare touch a drop of alcohol at lunch if I needed to be driving on German roads three hours later.

  6. Although I have to allow for the possibility of delays, I can say with relative certainty when I will arrive somewhere to meet someone. The train I'm taking to Tübingen on Friday is scheduled to leave Horb at 11:24 and arrive in Tübingen at 11:54. If I were ballsy enough to drive there, I wouldn't have any idea how long it would take to get there and then find a parking place. I don't even have to think about that - I can leave my house at 11:00 and I'll be at the Bahnhof in Tübingen less than an hour later.

  7. It's more environmentally friendly than driving by car. The way I see it, the trains and buses are running anyway whether I'm on them or not. Every car on the road is using one type of energy resource or another, and if I drive instead of go with the train that's already scheduled to drive that stretch (Horb to Esslingen, for instance), I'm doing more harm to the environment than good.

  8. There is a WC (restroom) on most trains. I don't like to use them, but in case of urgent need, it's there. There's no WC in the car.

  9. I can read, sleep, plan my day, make a shopping list, eat and drink, write a blog post, and meet people (this is highly unlikely in my case but might appeal to others) while traveling by train. None of that works behind the wheel.

This bus stop is a four-minute walk from home,
and I'm down at the Bahnhof in nine minutes..
All told, I'll take public transportation over driving any day.

What did I miss?


  1. Public transportation in Germany is pretty amazing! And trains here are cheap too, at least compared with England.

  2. For long distances, ICE trains are definitely faster than car. We travel from Hamburg to Nuremberg quite often, and it is either a 5-hour drive or a 3-hour train ride. As long as we can book the tickets at least 2 months in advance (later than that, it gets so expensive!), then we always opt for the train.

    I do love German public transit.

    1. I heard just today that a friend of ours drove by car from Esslingen to Pforzheim for a birthday party. He planned for one hour, and it took him 2 hours and 45 minutes because of congested roads, construction, and traffic jams. Not worth the stress. My husband doesn't mind driving, so when we go somewhere together we always go by car. But since he has to concentrate and stay alert, I keep quiet for the most part. I'm also often wearing my "anti-panic glasses" ("Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" reference).