Sustainability Exchange – Part 1: Public Transportation

A UConn “Sustainability Exchange” Experience – Public Transportation to, from, and in Freiburg, Germany

This is series of blog posts by Rich Miller, UConn’s Director of Environmental Policy, comparing and contrasting aspects of environmental sustainability at Freiburg University (Albert Ludwig University at Freiburg or Freiburg Uni) and in the “Green City” of Freiburg, Germany, with similar sustainability aspects and metrics at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and its main campus located in Storrs, within the small town of Mansfield, and the rural surroundings of northeastern CT.  Rich received a professional staff travel grant from UConn’s Office of Global Programs and used it to visit Freiburg over a two-week period in July 2012 for this international sustainability exchange program.

How do the Germans and foreign visitors travel in and around Freiburg?  Are alternative modes of transportation popular and encouraged by local government, institutions and businesses? Is public transportation convenient, accessible and affordable to the masses?

At first, mass transit in Germany didn’t seem much different from airports and buses in the U.S., at least not based on my departure from JFK airport in NY and my arrival in Frankfurt, Germany.  After the short flight to JFK from Hartford, we settled in for a two-hour layover. But as boarding time neared, we were shuttled from the crowded and rather run down international terminal to the new and more spacious one still under construction.  Hate to think what would have happened had we not heard the announcement about that gate change and then missed the 15-minute shuttle bus ride across a corner of the busy runway, just in time for boarding.  After an overnight, wind-aided 8-hour flight to Germany, I was a little stiff and sleep-deprived, but well caught up on a few recent movies.

Once safely on the ground and through customs and baggage claim in Frankfurt, we waited briefly in line for the free shuttle to the train station.  On the bus, we were instructed in three languages, German, French and English (thankfully, this is a standard practice for internationally-frequented mass transit systems in Germany), that it would be an 8-minute ride.  Accurately timed, I’d say! I compared this precision with the shuttle across the tarmac at JFK, where we waited for clearance at several points along the runway and the driver risked no attempt at such an announcement. At Frankfurt’s main mega-train station, which, in the US resembles NYC’s Grand Central Station or a mid-sized airport terminal, we needed to find our way to the high speed/direct train line, aka ICE (Inter-City Express), to Freiburg.  Through the ICE, the German Railway offers clean, fast and sleek trains with direct connections to several larger cities in Germany and beyond.  While this is similar to the newer high speed/bullet trains between Washington, DC and NYC, the ICE covers a much larger area and serves as a convenient, mass transit backbone for most of Germany.

The ICE to Freiburg would be a 2-hour ride, costing about $65 a ticket – not cheap, but compared to the price of gasoline in Germany, a relatively affordable option.  I saw a gas station sign for regular at 1.57 euros per liter, which translates to about 6 euros/$7.22 a gallon.  Of course, the price for everything is higher for us Americans, given the poor euro-to-dollar exchange rate.  We hurried to exchange currency and purchase our ICE tickets, knowing that the Freiburg train left at two-hour intervals and not wanting to prolong the trip with a layover if we could avoid it. We made it to the ICE gate with 5 minutes to spare! But as it turned out, the train arrived a few minutes late – something the conductor would later apologize for in his announcements at several stops – in three languages, no less.  I wish the overnight flight from the US had been as spacious and comfortable as the ICE train – I might have gotten some sleep.

Front entrance to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) at Freiburg.

Freiburg taxis – most of them VWs of course, and all of them fuel-efficient sub-compact cars, were waiting curb-side at Freiburg’s impressive main train station, located adjacent to the bus station and the public bike rental center.  This complex served as a combination “mobility station,” shopping mall and city gathering place of sorts – cafes, fast food, grocery and sporting goods stores, bakeries, travel agencies and information stations, crowded with residents, commuters and tourists alike.

Outside the train station, I caught my first glimpse of the electric trams, which continuously loop on tracks and cables throughout the city, including stops within the historic Altstadt (Old City), where motor vehicles are mostly prohibited, and at scattered sections of the Freiburg Uni campus. When I took the tram to the city’s Vauban eco-district (one of the many destinations on my Green City map) I found it to be faster than traveling by car or bus, but probably not as efficient as a bicycle, had I known my way around town.  Buses in Freiburg generally don’t compete with the trams in the Altstadt or inner-city but instead travel to the outskirts of town and beyond.  In addition to transit and commuter buses, there were steady streams of buses arriving and departing daily with groups of tourists and shoppers.

Two of the continuously-looping electric trams wait for passengers to board in Freiburg’s Altstadt. For a few euros or less, the trams will take you anywhere you need to go in Freiburg, from the inner-city to nearby village districts.

While there’s no real comparison between mass transit at UConn, in rural Mansfield, with the impressive public transportation network that Freiburg Uni enjoys within a city the size of Freiburg, it’s also fair to point out that UConn has had to piece together its own system for transport on- and off-campus.  UConn’s continuously looping shuttle buses are always free to students, faculty, staff and the public. This fall (2012), new streamlined bus routes, designed to reduce wait times as well as total mileage, will be unveiled. During the school year, through arrangements with companies like Mega-Bus, Huskies can find low-cost fares for direct trips to NYC and Boston available daily. If more flexible or convenient transportation to other off-campus destinations is needed, students and others can now rent one of four ultra-low emissions vehicles stationed around campus, available at low-cost hourly rates (gas and insurance included) through UConn’s new car-sharing program, run by Hertz-On-Demand.

Back at the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof, after coffee on the ICE train, the restroom beckoned.  The one and only “WC” (water closet) or public restroom at the main train station required 0.80 euros (roughly $1) per person, payable at the turnstile entrance.  This can be said from my experience – very little in Germany is free of charge – clean, accessible and efficient, yes, but everything at a price.  Even this blog comes across the internet at a special discount rate of 5 euros per day (versus 3 euros per hour) from the w-fi equipped hotel.

(Next – Part 2: Bicycle Transportation)

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