Transit metropolis

Berlin grew around its ubiquitous, indomitable transport architecture, and today, the city remains welded to its public transit grid. But in an era of privatisation and changing priorities, has it lost its urban vision?

Image for Transit metropolis
Image by Fabio Lamanna

Berlin grew up around its ubiquitous, indomitable transport architecture. Today, the city remains welded to its public transit grid – but in an era of privatisation and changing priorities, has it lost its urban vision?

“Train chaos brings Berlin to a standstill,” read a damning Time magazine headline last July, when the S-Bahn sputtered along at one-quarter capacity in the heat of summer. “Germany’s reputation for efficiency is under threat!” the story went on, as if a once impregnable Teutonic transport network had finally collapsed. An ongoing privatisation push by the system manager, Deutsche Bahn, was rightly blamed for long-festering neglect, yet the situation was not quite paralysing – a likely scenario if the same had happened in Paris or London.

Berlin’s highly integrated and resilient transport web – the only European network currently running under-capacity – still delivered people to their destination via buses, trams and the underground, no matter how much they complained. It’s a system that has continued to roll quickly, and efficiently, through a century of destruction and division. But could the wheels be finally falling off?

Europe’s first state-funded metro rail system

In 1871, German unification and victory in the Franco-Prussian War was founded on Krupp steel and a booming railway network. As Prussia moved to consolidate its grand industrial capital in Berlin, the city’s sudden expansion from town to megalopolis was driven by Europe’s first state-funded metro system. The Ringbahn was completed in 1877 to ensure military mobility, but the rail lines didn’t yet encroach on expensive inner-city land – the prudent, privately run regional lines stopped at Bahnhöfe on the periphery until the east-west Stadtbahn was completed in 1882.

Built on viaducts that continue, to this day, to puncture Berlin’s cityscape, the prototype elevated railway wound its way across Friedrichstraße to Charlottenburg, joining two formerly disconnected cities (Charlottenburg was a separate town until a century ago). Although it was a logistical nightmare, this debut line played a vital role in moving workers to the growing industry along the Spree. But it could never have happened without government money; 130 years on, public money remains the foundation of Berlin’s elaborate transport grid.

This military-industrial transport system was slow to take on commuters, but Prussian planners – with lessons learned from city transport systems in France and Britain – eventually mapped out one of Europe’s great metropolitan networks. In 1902, the first Untergrundbahn was completed between Warschauer Straße and Ernst-Reuter-Platz (with a branch to Potsdamer Platz), and Berlin’s urban geography became wedded to its mushrooming transport network.

A railway-based city

“You can see how much of the city was guided by the transport lines in its development,” says Paola Alfaro d’Alençon, an associate professor in architecture and urban design at TU Berlin. “We have this clear border. All the buildings inside the Ringbahn are 22m-high Mietskasernen – the mass housing for workers designed by the Berlin city planner James Hobrecht.”

Meanwhile, the rising middle-class could commute to more sedate Charlottenburg and Schöneberg while maintaining quick access to the ‘downtown’ area. Berlin rail stations acted as hubs for housing, work and retail, tying urban development to the transport grid. “This transport network allowed Berlin to become what it still is today,” says Philipp Rode, Executive Director of the London School of Economics’s Urban Age programme and an alumnus of the Technical University of Berlin. “If you look at a satellite image of the city, most of its configuration is a direct consequence of where the railway lines were put in. You can recognise this sort of star formation, where there are eight or nine different tentacles.”

By the 1920s, when Berlin’s Weimar-era population hit four million (it was the world’s third largest city after London and New York), Bauhaus architects and German expressionist painters and filmmakers – including the great Fritz Lang – took inspiration from an angular metropolis pierced by train lines running above and below ground. Even the National Socialists were committed to a grand transport vision: they completed a massively expensive north-south S-Bahn line in the 1930s. The Deutsche Reichsbahn went on to facilitate the biggest mass murder in history, transporting millions of people from across Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe to concentration camps.

Saved by the Wall

In the mid-20th century, amid rapid motorisation, many world cities saw highways substitute train and tram lines. Berlin’s transit network was, ironically, saved by the Cold War. “This idea of a railway-based city was preserved in Berlin because of its particular history as a divided city,” Rode says. “Because West Berlin was an island, there weren’t suburbanisation effects like in Munich and Frankfurt.” With nowhere to grow, and with industry long lost to the West German mainland, the city stagnated; its public transport system was preserved. According to Rhode, “Without the Wall, the city would now look completely different.”

But the divided network underlined the devastation of a community linked by the U- and S-Bahn for over 50 years. West Berliners often boycotted S-Bahn lines that were managed by the GDR’s Reichsbahn – and the latter was known to inflame tensions by leaving propaganda at stations in the West. In the 1970s, the U7 line was built in West Berlin so that residents could avoid the East-controlled Ringbahn that ran almost parallel to it. Furthermore, much of the mixed retail space around the viaducts in the West sat abandoned because residents refused to pay rent to the Reichsbahn.

A split S-Bahn “does not just allow us to comprehend German division,” Andrea Szatmary said in an interview with Deutsche Welle last year; Szatmary was the curator of an exhibition at the Marienfelde Refugee Center Memorial about the divided rail network. “Between the building of the Wall in 1961 and 1989, it was also a perpetual reminder of the remaining links between East and West Berlin. There was the Wall that divided, but the S-Bahn that connected.” This became apparent when the U8 and U6 ran past East Berlin’s “ghost” stations without stopping.

World-class transit

Post-Mauerfall, the divided system was mended – and prospered. Not only was pride in the transport infrastructure revived, but there was no belated push towards sprawl and motorisation. “There were some new urban experiments – they built big malls in Brandenburg and so on – but they didn’t work. This was already an era when there was a green consciousness, when people knew the negative effects of building a city for the automobile,” says Rode.

Reunification ushered in another grand urban vision for the city: the Planwerk Innenstadt, which assumed that the population would grow by more than two million. Instead, it stagnated. But local and federal governments continued to pump billions into the network, as if the revitalised German capital was defined by the efficiency and virility of its vast transport web. Plans for ongoing network expansion and interconnectivity included the U55 micro line from the new Hauptbahnhof along Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz via the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

Today, this network is “massively overpotent” according to Rode. It thus qualifies as a “transit metropolis” in the eyes of Robert Cervero, an urban planner at the University of California. “When the connectivity of transit is so high – mimicking or exceeding the connectivity of the auto-highway system – and for a vast majority of trips it is faster to go by train than car, then it’s a bona fide transit metropolis. Transit is the conduit of a city like Berlin, connecting neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood and ensuring high regional accessibility, from anywhere to everywhere. When you don’t have to think so much about schedules because of frequent service, then it’s world-class transit.”

A public service under threat?

World class it might have been, but following the S-Bahn chaos of mid-2009, for how much longer? The planned privatisation of the S-Bahn’s parent company, the national railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB), was said to have underpinned last year’s meltdown. Following an accident last May in which a train derailed, an investigation found that DB had neglected train maintenance – allegedly to boost profitability in the run-up to a sale to private investors, which was ultimately aborted because of the financial crisis.

The S-Bahn’s four managing directors were subsequently sacked. More heads in DB’s management are expected to roll. Mayor Klaus Wowereit and the city government reacted furiously. In February, they maintained that all options were on the table, from a complete takeover by the city-owned BVG (which runs the underground, trams and buses) to selling off the operation of about a quarter of the S-Bahn network to private companies by 2017. This could all be a threat to prod Deutsche Bahn to either get its act together or forgo the €230 million annual subsidy it receives from Berlin to operate the S-Bahn. Or not.

All is not well with the municipally run BVG, either. Michael Cramer, a Green Party member of the European Parliament and a former Berlin city-state MP, said as far back as 2006 that passenger numbers in the capital had dropped a quarter in 10 years (although more than a third of residents still use the network). According to Cramer, this decline is occurring for two reasons: on the one hand, the BVG doubled fares, and on the other, service has deteriorated – less train/bus/tram frequency, shorter operation hours and so on. In an era of budget cuts and privatisation, profit has been gaining priority over service in Berlin.

“Privatisation is not going to work,” Rode says. “There is now a recognition that public transport in urban areas will have to be supported and subsidised, with measures for a greener future to be incorporated into the costing.” As if on cue, German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer of the CSU now says that the privatisation of Deutsche Bahn would be a mistake.

Rode is confident it won’t happen, but Alfaro d’Alençon is less sure: she cites the profiteering Berlin Hauptbahnhof as the meta-transport hub of the ‘new Germany’. This behemoth – which became the largest train station in Europe upon its completion in 2006 – is more a vanity project for politicians in the nearby Reichstag than a practical transport solution since, according to Alfaro d’Alençon, it barely connects to an established network of other ‘hubs’ like Ostkreuz and Südkreuz. “Is it a shopping mall or train station?” asks Alfaro d’Alençon of a Hauptbahnhof set up by DB to be self-funded.

“Priorities are obviously changing since it has to be profitable,” she says, noting that one quarter of the Hauptbanhof’s income derives from retail rents. “As an urban designer, issues of exclusion arise when space is privatised. A mall is not a public space. If you don’t buy you get thrown out.” Alfaro d’Alençon also notes that DB “is becoming a real estate developer”, initiating private-public partnerships to develop public land around the Hauptbahnhof. Motivated by profit, these redevelopments signal changing priorities for public land use, a point made by critics of the Media Spree development in Berlin.

Berlin’s very open, accessible and public transport network has long buttressed an egalitarian civic design where most things, for most people, are only a ride away. But with different priorities, this network, along with the city, might be about to change irrevocably.