Munich Loves Cars, Yet Uses Trains To Compete With Cars. Can The U.S. ?

Article Overview And 3 Fundamental Principles Of Regional Rail

My photo from this pedestrian bridge in the Olympic Park passes over Munich’s main ring-road.  The photo offers a rich metaphor to discuss how we can bring some of Munich’s standard-setting methods to U.S. metros.  On the left is BMW’s HQ and its museum glorifying their iconic car. However out-of-view just to its left is an U-Bahn station and one mile to its right is another; both with two subway lines fed by buses and trams, a complete alternative. Working seamlessly together are six modes serving the Park’s attractions, the BMW campus and the dense residential buildings on the horizon. 

This well-connected clockwork is produced by Munich’s metropolitan authorities. They tightly coordinate all aspects of transit, have synergy with car policies and collaborate with land uses. These everyday efficiencies are too rare in U.S. metros. So, applying Munich’s practices to, say, the balkanized transit of Chicago is too big a stretch today… unless we shape a new strategy. Its key ingredient is both countries have federal structures in which states are primarily responsible for commuting. Germany’s advantage is states delegated this to metros and their transit progress has been consistent for several decades.

If American states were to delegate transit’s governance, the stretch is strategically possible to make. Then, we can make major progress in converting commuter rail into regional rail.

A key lesson is Munich’s regional authority was boosted by federal power to have world-leading transit for the 1972 Olympics. To compete with five decades of German transit success, strong U.S. policy goals will be needed and, politically, it will need to appeal to federalism’s strengths. Vital, this strategy is detailed in the next and final article of this “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”

Each of the current article’s three sections below suggests a principle of German practice that we can adapt to major U.S. metros. The examples in each section are rough sketches for the final article that advocates for six through-route studies to be funded in the 2020 Reauthorization. (Until that article is posted, feel free to review the concluding article in “What Stations Teach.”)

The proposed six federally-funded studies should address how to adapt to U.S. metros these three principles explored in this Munich article. It is worth noting that similar competitive advantages are provided by trains serving most western European metros. Thus, an over-arching U.S. goal should be to close that gaping advantage.

Fundamentals So U.S. Federalism Can Help Trains Solve Chronic Commuting Congestion

A) Fare-integration makes transit grow.  Effective regional mobility must transfer passengers efficiently between operators. Fare-integration directs this progress. This section briefly compares fare-integration in Munich and The Bay Area, two metros on the leading edge of their respective nations.

Despite the Bay Area’s innovation lead over other U.S. transit metros, its MPO lacks authority to elevate operators to the next phase of fare-integration that requires regional rules. This section suggests agency fare-integration in U.S. metros will grow if it is part of a federal strategy to require collaboration as a condition for funding.

B) Collaboration creates success.  Munich’s metropolitan authorities set a high standard for collaboration. Early evidence is the Munich chapter in Robert Cervero’s classic “The Transit Metropolis,” published at the end of the last century. This case study describes how Munich’s operators are directed by a metro authority to shape a tightly integrated multi-modal transit system. In turn, land use authorities support that system with TOD and, together, makes a viable alternative to cars.  As capstone research stretching for the better part of this century, Buehler et al (2018) suggests how federal policies improved collaboration within German metros during the last three decades of the 20th Century. Their research also describes how metros in the 21st Century increasingly play a larger role in sustaining service growth. My take-away is this policy shift back to metros empowers how they improve net operations.

If the U.S. is to reverse transit deterioration and make-up for lost decades, this section suggests U.S. policy must use commuter rail upgrades to start shaping each region’s transportation governance so it is collaborative. The strongest U.S. role can draw from three German-speaking federal capitals (Berlin, Zurich, Vienna.) By analogy, we could restructure trains to serve DC’s metropolis while reducing its peak hour stress on its subway. And given New York’s dire condition, this highest level of U.S. authority also is needed to convert their multi-state quagmire into an integrated regional rail system. Strong federal authority and funds also will have to negotiate reforms so single states such as Massachusetts and Illinois delegate sufficient authority so their main metros can through-route.

C) Through-routes grow alternatives to compete with cars.  Clearly indicating Munich’s long-term train growth, its authority just started construction on a second through-route for an express service that runs parallel and stops at five of the 11 central stations connected by the 1972 tunnel. In five decades, Munich has outgrown its first generation through-route (TR) and is building its second; perhaps putting U.S. metros one-half century behind. This capital-intensive project is Munich’s second boost of federal authority and funds, albeit smaller than the first.

U.S. federal policy should follow a similar flexible pattern of helping metros get their TR tunnels while making a regional authority that can sustain its network. This strategy must end decades of talk about TRs by agencies who do not deliver, again Massachusetts and Illinois are primary proof. Less intense federal negotiations would be required in California as it already is devolving authority to its two metros requiring TRs, LA and the Bay Area.

Thus, all six major metros I’ve written about previously have adapted Munich “lessons” in this article as sketches for the final article.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

A) Transit Tales Of Two Postwar Cities: Fare-integration helps transit grow… or not

Faced with 90% of its center bombed, Munich, essentially, became a postwar city. Initially, greenfield development was faster and less costly; adding to a sprawling metropolis. Munich also was the centerpiece of Germany’s postwar “economic miracle” and as late as 2005 was still voted as Germany’s most successful city. (A unified Berlin is the sentimental favorite now.) Munich is a major high-tech center. Its #2 employer is a technology institute; although BMW employs some 3 times more Munichers. Showing transportation balance, Munich also is the global HQ for Siemens; manufacturer of rail vehicles that, arguably, set standards launching the 21st Century’s worldwide revolution in regional and high speed rail. 

At the outset, consider this theory: Munich set standards for postwar commuting by properly organizing the alternatives to autos and integrating all modes so the system could compete with the car. Let’s call our theory “The Munich Integration.”  Its evolution models and/or mirrors other major German commuter systems I surveyed. Their key strategy uses through-stations to expand train capacity and convenience to cars. Munich’s Miracle also models how trains redevelop other German metros. 

Theory aside, Munich’s S-Bahn serves the metro’s main economic arteries. This green network (above map) collects commuters from eight far-reaches of the metropolis and brings them through an eleven station center. This map gives the impression you can get from anywhere to anywhere else using the green-lined S-Bahn and easily connect to other modes.

And what the map suggests, Munich’s system delivers. The Munich authority — called MVV (VV roughly means “transport alliance”) — controls seven major operators. (The upper left corner has their logos.) This transit authority for Munich and its eight surrounding districts controls transit assets so 40+ operators provide seamless journeys that use one shared fare-card and zone map. 

The MVV connects cars, buses, trams and subways to the 150 S-Bahn stations for the next leg of the commute; creating the synergy that boosted ridership 2.5 times faster than the metro’s population, helped increase household savings and made more possible the economic miracle.

How did this success happen? 

Big Bang. “Economic Miracle” and commuting synergy came together in Munich’s Big Bang: the S-Bahn’s terminating lines were through-routed … five months before the 1972 Olympics opened. What this double Big Bang really did since 1973 was to use transport so vibrant suburbs helped redevelop the destroyed city center since that took more time and capital. Today, that late 20th Century reinvestment in the center creates a wealth that helps redevelop suburbs for the 21st Century; creating a virtuous cycle. Regional transportation governance has economic benefits we still need to quantify.

Germans seem to make the strategy work. Munich redeveloped its center better than many West German cities and the MVV’s train synergy helped model two post-reunification urban stars. Best known is Berlin’s renewal as capital and its 2006 Hbf is the 21st Century’s model transport hub. 

Smaller, Leipzig was the former East Germany’s second largest city. Throughout most of the 20th Century it intended to make a downtown through-tunnel; but failed for lack of authority, healthy politics and money. After Reunification and a federal-state VV deal, an eight station central route unifying seven S-Bahn lines was completed in 2013. This helped revitalize Leipzig as Germany’s fastest growing city and also was awarded “The European City of the Year” in 2019 by The Academy of Urbanism. (Munich received the same award earlier.) For Leipzig’s progress within the general case for through-running, review this article from “Transport Politic.”

The force facilitating all three cities’ rail progress for commuters is the national rail, DB. It was reformed starting in the 1990s, partly from national policy and partly complying with European Union Directives. DB is the key force to make through-stations and improve networks. A key reform is how its subsidiary, DB Regio, has helped build regional rails in major metros. DB Regio runs five of the larger S-Bahns; but, it still has to win competitive bids to be the operator.

Now for the comparison… My study indicates ridership on U.S. commuter rail has not grown relative to five of the six metro’s population growth in the 21st Century. (The San Jose-San Francisco line is the exception.) There are commonly accepted reasons for this: inferior modal connectivity; poorly shared revenues; excessive deferred maintenance causing even more inferior service; usage policies that favor the auto, ranging simply from parking subsidies to the more radical analysis of not recovering the public costs for miles traveled. 

Whatever the reasons one chooses to emphasize, this evidence remains: German regional rail is an asset that transforms each metro’s urban and suburban communities alike; while U.S. commuter rail serves mostly suburbs and usually inadequately supports auto-alternatives.

The broad-stroke explanation is that U.S. metros lack authority to grow auto-alternatives so they can compete. We see this largely in how alternatives are proposed by civic groups. And while Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) usually write these proposals into long-range voluntary plans, no body has the authority to use trains to fashion better metropolitan transportation networks. So, train commuting problems continue; much as they did when trains were turned over to state agencies during their 1970s bankruptcies.

To stimulate that authority vacuum in a few targeted U.S. metros, The Transit Center in March 2019 sponsored a series of workshops for transit and civic leaders; bringing German experts to make presentations on how their metros govern transit. While I am aware of other discussions on how the German VVs (again, roughly “transit alliances”) might fit individual American metros, our missing link has been how the U.S. should foster effective collaborations. In particular, how can we start during today’s FAST Reauthorization?  Here is an example of why only Uncle Sam can accelerate improvements in train commuting.  

Courtesy of Seamless Bay Area, this map conveys the territorial nature of 28 local operators and the region’s struggles described below. Its precedent was SPUR’s 2015 Report “Seamless Transit.

One of the five TC-sponsored workshops was held for Bay Area leaders; arguably the U.S. metro that developed the best alternatives to the auto in the postwar era. Many Bay Area policy proposals emerge from SPUR, a civic group with offices in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. To followup the Bay Area workshop, SPUR produced an informative introduction entitled “My Rider Is Your Rider” that explains clearly how German metro authorities work and suggests six takes-aways for the Bay Area. More detailed solutions were proposed in May with SPUR’s White Paper “Solving The Bay Area’s Fare Policy Problem.” SPUR has long proposed policy so the region’s many transit operators function as a single, seamless network and so differences between them are unnoticeable to the rider. Today’s efforts have been pushing that policy position into the more limited software upgrade of the Bay Area’s 10 year old fare card.

In response to this disciplined civic proposal, the Bay Area’s MPO appeared to agree to look at more integrated fares. Then in June, the MPO voted against a $600,000 study to understand how fare integration could generate more riders and revenue. Fearing they would lose revenue, operators basically denied the study. This denial was made in the face of the MPOs’ widely known research showing the average Bay Area resident boarded transit 11% less in 2017 than 1991.  Bad enough that transit did not do their job and keep pace with population growth, but the lack of authority shows how easily bureaucracies can resist a proven prerequisite to growth: fare integration. 

The story twisted again in late October when the MPO’s Committee was persuaded by civic pressure and approved a $250,000 study. This reduced study uses only existing operator data on riders; thus not focussing on the multi-trip riders and their inconveniences transferring. The MPO’s compromised study seems as if it will not study closely how Bay Area operators’ differing fares suppress ridership. By analogy, 66% of Munich riders transfer and transfers are the primary source of new riders.

It is hard for me to tell today if this is a cynical attempt to keep collaboration from advancing or whether the MPO is just penny-wise and pound-foolish. Regardless, tactics exist for operators to limit the Clipper Card’s upgrade and make fare-integration even more difficult. A true metro authority using federal and state laws would force the Bay Area’s 28 operators to collaborate with the study so they would learn how sharing revenue benefits commuters, grows ridership and gives taxpayers greater value.

Relative to other American MPOs, two political reasons explain how the Bay Area MPO is more sensitive to public pressure. First, two major operators (BART and AC buses) elect Directors. The second is California is progressive in decentralizing transportation authority to its metros.

What this probably means for U.S. policy. Furthermore, the resistance to merely studying updates in the more progressive Bay Area suggests that American MPOs may have structural limits to the task. Instead, we should look to a dynamic strategy that attacks chronic congestion systemically; including how to generate more revenue and give taxpayers better value. Not suited for these challenges, MPOs are mere Planning Organizations; producing voluntary plans, further reduced in effectiveness by tensions between suburbs and cities. A true authority makes regional solutions. 

While civic groups in other metros also propose integrating farebox revenue, most agency progress is slower than the Bay Area. While there is lots of unfinished work in federal MPO reform, the final article in “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” explores creating an integrated corridor authority whose job is to coordinate new ways to balance all modes. This corridor strategy suits the Bay Area’s long western route and its need for a second Bay crossing.

Admittedly, Munich comparisons are not tightly analogous to the relative backwardness of America’s legacy systems. Most are held from progress by a lack of metro authority allowing decades of deferred maintenance. But understanding each nation’s better transit metros helps us understand what works within each nation’s framework. 

To keep that comparison concrete, consider this summarized analysis behind “What Stations Teach”: that America’s central terminals are metaphors for how each metro mis-manages transit. By highlighting a terminal’s antiquatedness, politicians more easily can understand the multiplier benefits of a through-station created by a true regional authority. Along those lines of elucidation, let’s look briefly at Munich’s 1972 S-Bahnhof conversion and today’s update.

B) How Collaboration Creates Long-term Growth In German Metros

With conversions now complete throughout most of Europe, drawings of terminals are nearly antiquated documents. But you can still see how today’s Munich Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) looks like the classic terminal, not unlike the nine terminals of today’s ten largest U.S. stations. Looking much as it did in 1971, Hbf has surface gates 5 to 36 (above in light brown) as terminating tracks serving mostly the national rail and Bavaria’s Regio DB.  

Modern commuting emerged with the 1972 opening of the subterranean through-run S-Bahnhof (pink at the top.)  Efficiently serving eight lines (see first MVV map), the S-Bahnhof’s dotted line is a mere two tracks (one for each direction); each having a train pass-through at least every two minutes during peak hour. Riders exit in a middle platform and enter on two side platforms. This high-capacity S-Bahnhof has tightly integrated connections; two separate level blue subway stations serve 5 lines while trams and buses connect at ground level. The Hbf’s S-Bahnhof is the middle stop of eleven downtown stations. 

A more efficient and effectively evolved transit hub I have not seen in eight years of study. Yet we learn something important upon knowing that Munich’s Hbf is a very tired architectural hodge-podge stretching over 120 years; surviving heavy bombing in the war. While U.S. terminals were facing demolition starting in the 1960s, Hbf had been rebuilt and was under constant innovation. Munich Hbf lead Germany’s large hubs until 2006 when Berlin’s Hbf made its statement of national unification; welcoming all to the government’s new campus. 

However, Munich’s Hbf will have its most rapid changes in the next decade when almost two-thirds of Hbf will be updated, coincident with the new tunnel for the S-Bahn’s express service; discussed further in the last section.  Below is a 2018 photo of Hbf’s tired post-war entrance followed by a rendering of its contemporary remake due in 2026.

As such, Hbf offers this strategic lesson for American politicians: the sizzle comes last. Powerful mayors in Chicago, LA and San Francisco have all pushed for converting their respective central terminals into big civic statements. But all three station remakes have stalled, in part because no body has the authority to through-run and expand each system’s capacity and each station’s economic value.

As a possible universal formula to move the U.S. forward: Munich’s — and Germany’s — transit success may tell us that progressive policy precedes the central station symbol. 

So, our next major question is this: how does the Hbf’s efficiencies run throughout the transit system ?  I’ll let the experts discuss that next.  

Chris Spieler* wrote an article on the ideas and infrastructure that the U.S. can learn from Munich‘s rail. With the Hbf as only the first ingredient, he describes four others that compose one of the western world’s best regional rail systems.  Chris also puts Munich’s progress in perspective with this Tweet:

“Sticking to the basics made Munich’s success story… After the federal State of  Bavaria empowered the MVV in 1970, ridership has grown 100% across all modes  while the metro’s population has grown only 40%.” (His stats covered 46 years).

While five decades of growth is impressive enough, Munich’s 2% annual growth in the last six years indicates the MVV clearly is not a hide-bound bureaucracy and was able to grow despite recent trends undermining transit growth in the west.

Comparatively, all U.S. metros (except New York) saw transit decline by 7% in the most recent decade per Congressional Research Service study using APTA ridership data.

To focus on trains, the same CRS study shows U.S. commuter rail service (again excluding New York) has flat-lined for the last decade. This supports my findings in the nine legacy systems I studied in which only two (Caltrain and New Jersey Transit) clearly are above their ridership peaks from 2007 relative to their region’s population growth. Worse, U.S. train agencies tend to be biased to suburbs and only indirectly help urban redevelopment. And since population growth still continues in suburbs (albeit slower than the 20th Century), metros have an even greater need to use trains better. On many counts, trains are an under-utilized asset that are the true measure of whether a metro actually can reduce car congestion.

So the big policy question is: why does Munich have continuing growth while U.S. metros usually see gains wiped out ?

To understand Munich transit’s staying power, I suggest reviewing Robert Cervero’s classic text** “The Transit Metropolis.”  As one of the text’s twelve case studies written in the mid-1990s, the Munich chapter is introduced best by excerpting this one sentence.  “All large German cities feature extensive rail networks, but none are better designed, coordinated and adapted to the cityscape than Munich’s.” (page 213.) 

Outlining an early formula for auto alternatives, Cervero details MVV coordination with land use agencies to boost redevelopment around both central stations and key S-Bahn stations.

In the chapter’s conclusion, Learning from Munich, Cervero sums this metro “is both transit-oriented and transit-adapted” (p.233).  The chapter analyzes how suburban sprawl of the early postwar period was balanced by the MVV marshaling bus, tram and para-transit networks to feed suburban trains efficiently. The chapter describes how MVV influences a broad array of rules — from parking to user fees — in “push-pull” management strategies that induce modal shift from car-dependence. This eighth chapter, “Making Transit Work in the Land of the Autobahn: Munich,” certainly contrasts against the fragmented policies within U.S. metros.

I think Cervero’s analysis of the Munich metro’s sprawl would analogize roughly to U.S. legacy trains if America’s diffuse governments had not resisted re-balancing transportation for the last half century. If U.S. inadequacies in governance are to be fixed so transportation contributes to a more sustainable economy, we must start exploring prototypes during this Reauthorization. And the one improvement that most improves alternatives and rationalizes authority is converting terminals to through-routes. It will help bring the American transportation mindset into the 21st Century.

Since Cervero published “Transit Metropolis” in 1998, we have not had one U.S. terminal conversion and, instead, we have stagnation in our legacy systems. Seemingly searching for a cure to America’s chronically fragmented metropolitan politics, we now have two decades of scholarly analysis of how public transport improves exponentially with agency collaboration. The culmination is the article published in 2018, spearheaded by Ralph Buehler detailing how  VVs spread across German-speaking major metros in 24 years.  

A must-read for anyone serious about advancing modal collaboration in the U.S. today, the article highlights particularly well the impressive results of agency collaboration. U.S. legislative staff will quickly see the value for taxpayers to invest in combatting today’s inefficiencies and congestion. You can find German results easiest in the article’s Conclusion; but this is amply supported throughout. Of key relevance to obstacles the U.S. faces is this concluding passage.

“The crucial precondition for a VV is the willingness of local governments to work together to improve PT services in their region. Provided that precondition is met, VVs would be feasible in many of the world’s metropolitan areas.”

Both historically and henceforth for U.S. metros, the lack of collaboration between agencies is a key obstacle to benefitting from the synergistic transportation that our European competition increasingly has.

But, we can narrow the gap by learning lessons from the work Buehler and his colleagues document. I view two strategies employed by Germans in comprehensively building VVs. The first is prototyping; its importance is described at the end of this section. The second strategy reduces operator independence and, then, increases the metro’s authority. Reading through Buehler, I more clearly saw that modernization comes from the federal level helping the metro build the structure it needs. 

In thinking through how these strategies get adapted to the politics of the U.S., I found it helpful to see federal power as a range, suitable for the situation to produce the best results.

When heavy federal participation is needed. My take-away lessons from the Buehler article’s section 5, “Motivation and process of founding VVs” is that federal participation was strongest in the federal capitals of Vienna (1984), Zurich (1990) and Berlin (1999.)  This showed symbolism for the emerging federal policy. But it was also practical; each city needed its S-Bahn to relieve stress on its U-Bahn.

By analogy to the United States, the strongest federal authority should “convey” responsibility to the D.C. metropolis to update Virginia and Maryland trains into a modern system that serves the region comprehensively and relieves chronic stress on its Metro.

When only federal power will meet deadlines and goals. The progress of the first prototype VV (Hamburg, 1966) started with operators having the most influence. (Not unlike how large American operators control regional bodies today.)  Later that year, Munich won the Olympic bid. The decision was made to form Munich’s VV with heavier federal participation since it was invested heavily in the 1972 Olympics and intended to showcase Munich within the “German Economic Miracle.”  So Bavaria conveyed sufficient authority to the Munich VV. Almost miraculously, it updated the S-Bahn on-time by building a tunnel connecting six eastern downtown stations. Five at-grade western stations complete the central through-route. Three months before world leaders flocked to the Olympics, the S-Bahn’s opening day also celebrated how an extensive service update could be completed on a compacted timeline.

Using the same rationale of strategic economic importance and a deadline to avoid global embarrassment, sufficient U.S. participation is needed to establish a New York metro agency capable of rebuilding its tunnels and integrating its three separate services into one that serves its three state metropolis.

But DC and New York are special metros requiring special authority to get those complicated jobs done. However, many American metros might resist federal policy “intrusion.”  To deal with diverse politics, we should understand how similar policies emerged in Paris, Milan, Madrid and Barcelona that appropriately combined regional concerns, national policies and EU Directives.

Policy that spreads transportation wealth nationwide. By the late 1980s, the largest German metros had established VVs. Starting with the Rhineland in 1980 providing a multi-city and bi-state prototype, the decade ended with Berlin’s powerful VV being written into the Acts of Reunification. During the 1990s, continuing federal legislation and compliance with EU Directives caused VVs to grow and form to serve most metros. While there was a federal carrot (capital) and stick (law) to start, it seems VVs became effective because each region grew less dependent; finding more capital and improving operator performance.  

This shift was a win-win-win as most VVs now have the incentive to reduce their operating subsidies and are. Additionally, a reformed national rail created regional divisions who, in turn, shared with young VVs what worked in older agencies. Many of these reforms also were guided by EU Directives; serving as a type of federal structure, albeit among nation-states.

While all levels of government should help transform rail into a key tool to reduce transportation emissions, all nine of the large S-Bahns in German-speaking metros had major updates run largely by a VV. Buehler points out that VVs now serve 85% of German citizens. 

My take-away is collaboration of local, state and federal agencies formed VVs and the flexibility to shift responsibilities as needed make S-Bahns ongoing growth more likely.

Now, adapting German success ingredients to update U.S. legacy systems requires a sharp change in federal policy and funding. Its specific goals must help metros relieve their individual states of their failures to update trains and convert terminals. The stand-out candidates are Boston, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois whose powerful mayors were keen to connect their terminals; but never got past long-term planning. I will propose federal policy more fully in the final article of this “Pre-Reauthorization Series.” For now, I’ve proposed outlines in  “What Stations Teach” articles for Boston and Chicagoland’s O’Hare Express Southside corridor.

Today, American motivation remains the key missing ingredient. VVs broke trains’ 19th Century mindset by converting terminals into through-stations that center through-networks. While this is replicated in most western European metros, Munich’s plan for a second tunnel for express trains through the downtown essentially gives their S-Bahn a next generation service … and proves the value of the original through-route (TR).

 C)  Through-Routes (TRs) strategically grow alternatives to compete with cars

Today’s S-Bahn carries 840,000 riders daily in a metro of 6 million. Or, 14% depend on the train every weekday. I’ll condense and ask you to consider that Munich sets Europe’s standard. (I’ll accept arguments that Paris’ RER set the big metro standard when its central tunnel also started in the 1970s. Today, the RER carries 13%.) However, Munich’s S-Bahn leads mid-sized European metros. Its rail commuting steadily improved into a tightly integrated 8 line, 150 station network that, today, is near capacity at peak hour. 

To avoid distracting analysis, the real point is Europe’s high standard has left U.S. metros in the dust. Even if we had the political machinery to make up for five lost decades, we must muster the will to pay today’s much higher costs. I guesstimate U.S. through-runs as costing twice what they would in 1970s dollars. Costs will be even worse if unreformed agencies spend the capital. Hence, our task really is finding better ways to govern transit; starting with this Reauthorization.

Since opening in 1972, Munich’s S-Bahn and central through-route has served as transit’s main multiplier, connecting train passengers to other modes. While frequent service and shared fares are good predictors of success, the MVV’s coordinated modes have greatly increased the percentage of operating costs covered by fares from 58 cents in 1990 to a recently 80 cents (Buehler p.10 table).  And in core Munich, fares cover 100% of all costs.

In building the case for states to yield proper authority, this can build operating surpluses. And to support federal investments in tunnels and through-stations, this can achieve social, environmental and financial goals.

Nor should any case forget that Munich’s success set-up its next generation of commuter service. MVV just started construction on a second central tunnel running parallel, just north. This express through-run uses 5 of those 11 central stations; further reducing commute time and increasing capacity. 

Possibly as Europe’s postwar prototype, Munich now is poised to strengthen its backbone for 21st Century growth. Munich’s second tunnel is the S-Bahn’s “optimization”; or at least that is how the national rail recently revised its plan to win regional support. This also optimizes the MVV’s full range of connected alternatives symbolized in the second map of this article. This express through-run elevates the MVV’s ability to compete for more share of the commuter market. 

Another example of German federal policy worth noting, the national rail proposed long-term plans to help MVV build a ring-bahn similar to Berlin’s S-Bahn innovation. Thus, collaboration between Munich’s agencies also extends to the S-Bahn and national rail planning a future together. Learning from Berlin’s mistakes, it will accelerate this third generation of trains for Munich.

Trying to apply German rails collaboration to reform the U.S. national rail is too ambitious a stretch now. But whatever happens to Amtrak, its assets (rails and stations) are strategic to regional rail and updating with tunnels in Chicago, New York and DC. Divesting those Amtrak assets will stimulate regional rail and could contribute to national rail reform.

Separately, Munich’s second tunnel is relevant to the Bay Area. Both made their first tunnel in the early 1970s; largely driven by new agencies, the MVV and BART respectively. Both regions now need another tunnel. However BART’s ineffectiveness in providing service to San Jose’s east side should remove BART from making the second Bay crossing. As for San Jose’s west side train to San Francisco by Caltrain, it cannot connect to the downtown Transbay hub and, thus, is not a candidate to make the second tunnel. 

So, SPUR views the Bay’s second tunnel as an opportunity to re-craft a vision and structure to get true regional rail instead of today’s hodge-podge. How the Bay Area expands capacity on the SJ-SF-East Bay corridor makes it a great candidate to prototype federal regional rail policy. But more on that is in the next and final article of this “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”

A final useful analogy to emphasize is that German states had to devolve their authority to shape metropolitan VVs. California already is devolving transit authority to its metros. I note this in my 2017 “WST” article and how this made through-routes (TRs) more likely for the Transbay Center and LA’s Union Station. SPUR leads one of the most proactive and effective civic discussions. Many SPUR proposals are more possible if California delegates further so a true metropolitan authority can direct the region’s operators and contractors.

My preview is the Bay’s second tunnel — or any TR — only gets built in time and within a reasonable budget if a suitable regional authority is encouraged by federal policy. A conclusion of “What Stations Teach” is that progress is more likely to happen if TRs are organized by applying the strategy under which rails were originally built: by corridor. Once a region has a powerful corridor prototype, its transit governance can be re-shaped.

All said, our concluding question is…

How should the U.S. invest and share best practices to get metros and their state(s) to work together to shape metropolitan transportation ?

In the final article of the “Pre-Reauthorization Series,” I will outline how TRs are an essential item for the next Reauthorization. Briefly, I now suggest why. The Senate has largely ignored transit innovations in its Committees. The House promises their bill by Spring and transit advocates are expecting to get much more than the Senate’s version. Yet, the differing bills will need a common ground for compromises. TR studies are an important compromise for many reasons. But the immediate case for these studies is suburbs again will be the battle-ground of the 2020 election. And studying how to use trains to reduce road congestion is a practical issue both sides should agree on.

Simply put, TRs unify and are an easier compromise that promise daily benefits.

While the next article explores how federal policy and funding for regional rail can rebalance commuting, this also is a practical way to start re-inventing U.S federalism for the 21st Century.



* Chris Spieler is the author of my highly recommended go-to guide evaluating transit in U.S. metros, “Trains, Buses, People.”  Chris also has the only Twitter account I can follow.

**  For Cervero’s classic “The Transit Metropolis”, I take personal liberty to note my milestone of now visiting 9 of this book’s 10 case studies. Some twenty years after Cervero finished his research, much of the analysis seems to hold up. These studies bolster my conclusion: the lead that global competitors have over U.S. metros will only increase unless our transportation governance is innovated to serve each region.

%d bloggers like this: