Migraines, Trains, and Automobiles

Traveling will drive you crazy, no matter where you are. But at least in Germany you get to choose how to be miserable.

A train in Germany. (kaffeeeinstein/Flickr)
train Deutsche Bahn Germany America travel

When Irene and I meet new people, everyone asks the same line of questions: What do you do? Where are you from? Where do you live? This last question always leads to a conversation about transit and commuting. As expatriate Americans, we value different things than our German friends. We don’t own a car here, and the question of how to get around presents a kind of cross-cultural paradox.

Our answers are simple enough. We’re from the U.S.A. We came because Irene’s a chemist and she got a job in Ludwigshafen, a port city on the Rhine. We don’t live in Ludwigshafen, however; we live in Heidelberg—and, for the Germans, this is where the trouble starts.

“Why would you ever do that?”

THE PROBLEM FOR THE Germans is this: it takes 55 minutes for my wife to commute from Heidelberg to Ludwigshafen—she takes two trams and a train—and over here, they tell me, anything over 15 minutes is considered transit purgatory.

Irene and I could have lived in Ludwigshafen, or just across the Rhine in Mannheim, but we chose Heidelberg, despite the long commute, because when the allied high command drew up bombing runs during The War, they didn’t put an X over Heidelberg. They bombed Ludwigshafen and Mannheim into near nonexistence. Heidelberg still has its castle and its old town. Here, you can walk down a residential street, look up at the ornamental facades and imagine a time centuries ago. In Mannheim, you can look up and imagine a mid-century apartment block in Cleveland or Los Angeles. We moved all the way to Europe; we wanted to at least live in an old building. This was the obvious choice.

At first, the idea of Irene commuting longer than three times the average German upset me. It meant we were not doing what the proverbial Romans were doing. But it turns out 15 minutes is an exaggerated figure. According to a European Foundation work survey, Germans spent, on average, 42 minutes a day commuting to and from work in 2000. A 2009 census study estimated (I had to double commute-to-work-times here) the figure was 53.4 minutes for American men and 46.8 for women. It seems Germans, or at least our German friends, are more opposed to the idea of commuting than the practice itself.

Nevertheless, a car, they tell me, would make Irene’s commute about 10 minutes shorter. The Germans, of course, love cars—or, at least, the idea of having a car. Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, VW, Audi—all fine automobiles. Then there’s autobahn, which lets them get out and really eat up the road. We’re Americans and every American has a car as far as our German friends know. Add that to my wife’s near-hour-long commute, and they don’t buy it.

“So, when are you gonna get a car?”

“Hopefully never.”

I tell them how in the Los Angeles area, where I grew up, a long commute is pretty normal. But that’s a bad excuse. The truth is I’m still a little shell-shocked from all the driving, the needless traffic, the boiling frustration, the stress. When everything is at least half-an-hour away, it warps your perspective on things: you begin to treat the time it takes to get from A to B as a write-off. At least on a train you can read a book.

THE TRAINS ARE GERMANY’S lifeblood. In addition to their super-fast Intercity-Express service, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail company, operates several networks of regional trains. Not as sleek as the intercity trains and not as fast, they connect metro areas with rural towns across the country. According to their own statistics, Deutsche Bahn moves 1.98 billion passengers annually. (By comparison, Amtrak hauled 30.2 million passengers across the United States in 2011—that’s million, with an “m.”) And those numbers don’t include the country’s trams, buses and metro lines, which seem to be everywhere. You can get wherever you need to go pretty quickly—and if you can’t, you move closer.

In the United States, it can be hard to find work without access to a car, and in many places, like Southern California, car ownership is damn near mandatory. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that per-capita car ownership is higher in the United States (777 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Energy) than in Germany (503, according to 2008 Eurostat figures).

Certainly, alternative transportation has something to do with car-ownership rates. We have buses and commuter trains and subways in metropolitan areas across the U.S., but most of them don’t have a large enough network to quickly get you where you need to be. Another important factor, of course, is the price of gas.

In Heidelberg, it costs more than €100 (about $125) to fill a mid-sized sedan’s 60-liter (16-gallon) tank. In the U.S., assuming a price of $4/gallon, that same tank would cost $64—or almost exactly half the Heidelberg price.

To put a finer point on it, consider this. My wife’s metro pass costs €72.90 (about $90) a month, and it gives her unlimited access to the regional trains, light rail, and buses in the 5,637-square-kilometer Rhine-Neckar metro area. To put that in perspective, for the last three years I drove a Toyota Corolla—not exactly a gas-guzzler—half-an-hour to and from work. I paid at least $200 a month in gas and insurance. Before we paid off the car, that $200 was $500.

Given the easy access to public transport and the high cost of car ownership, deciding not to get a car here was easy. We have bikes, and we burn up the bike lanes. If we need to go far, we take the train. I’ve already ridden Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) trains from Frankfurt to Mannheim three times, from Dresden to Frankfurt to Heidelberg once, and from Frankfurt to Hamburg and back once. The train carriages are like the luxury airliners of the ‘80s—except without flight attendants. In the dining car you can order an entire meal from a menu and watch someone prepare it in a little kitchen. You can drink draft beer from an actual glass, one etched with the beer's label. And you can do it all while moving at near-warp speed.

Well, sometimes you can.

LAST WEEK, I TOOK the one-hour ride from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden. The northbound train ran 10 minutes late, which wasn’t a big deal—until, just outside Worms, it stopped. I looked to see what platform we’d pulled into and realized we hadn’t arrived at any platform at all; we had stopped mid-track. The conductor made an announcement in German, and a woman across the aisle chuckled and rolled her eyes. I asked the guy next to me to translate, and he told me that the train had broken down. “Everything’s normal,” he said, “in other words.” I arrived in Wiesbaden over an hour late.

In some ways, the return trip was even worse. When the train pulled into Darmstat’s station, where I boarded, it was already full. I couldn’t find a seat and retired to the dining car. In the narrow hallway leading to the bar, a lanky blond man blocked my path. He held a camera up to a tiny open window, from which he appeared to be videotaping the landscape as we blurred past. (At this point, the train was flanked by hedgerows and there wasn’t much of a view.) Before I could say excuse me, he turned, wild eyed, and scolded me in German for forcing him to stop his film and step aside. I exchanged startled looks with the bartender, ordered a pils and clung to a nearby table for balance. All the seats in this car, like the others, were full.

It occurred to me, as I stood there, that there are universal truths when it comes to travel. For one, you will almost definitely encounter a crazy person. It might be someone recording a hedgerow from a high-speed train at a distance of two meters, or it might be a guy who listens to music through his iPhone’s speaker even though you see the headphones in his hands. Secondly, traveling just kind of sucks. Always. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a car, on a train, or in Air Force One. When you’re in transit, you’re looking forward to the destination. The padded seats and cold beers can only distract from that; they can’t replace it. You’re moving in that vehicle because you have to, not because you want to.

The Germans grew up with the trains. To them, there’s nothing new or impressive about all the things that had me so wide-eyed and giddy the first couple of times I took them. The dining car isn’t a luxury; it’s a place to escape the monotony of getting around. But also, for the Germans, breakdowns, delays, and overcrowding happen all the time. They’re not unnecessary bothers, but just an expected component of getting from one place to another.

From that all-traveling-is-traveling point of view, you can understand why the Germans look at cars like they do too. At least in a car you have control over where you’re going, and if your neighbor is trying to talk to you, well, you can roll up the window and wait for the light to turn green. Cars offer a certain individual freedom in a country where you’re otherwise at Deutsche Bahn’s whim.

Despite all that, public transportation makes too much sense for us right now financially and mentally—if not logistically. I’ve fought enough traffic for one lifetime. Irene, for the moment, agrees. I’d much rather sit on the train and daydream about what Southern California would be like with a high-speed network and a matching metro. It’s not the comfort of the trains I want, because that’s not guaranteed. It’s not the speed either. What I envy is the freedom of choice. The Germans are spoiled by the freedom to choose. If all travel options are bad by virtue of them being travel options, all you can ask for is a choice. In the States, you either stay home or you grab your keys and drive.

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