Monday, May 28, 2012

The Land where Freeways First Blossomed

Yes, Germany, not the U.S., was the first place where the freeway concept was implemented on a large scale. Without going into extensive detail on the history of freeways, suffice it to say that in the 1930s the National Socialist (Nazi) government implemented the idea of limited access multi-lane highways, with no legal speed limit. By 1940, more than 2,300 miles had been built. (At the same time, diesel and steam-driven high speed rail technologies were developed.)
World War Two destroyed much of Germany's transportation infrastructure, but with the Marshall Plan, highways and railways were rebuilt and Germany prospered. Companies like Daimler-Benz, Bayrishes Motor Werke (BMW), Audi, and Volkswagen produced automobiles that became highly desired around the world, including at home in Germany. Many people use them for the purpose they were designed for: to travel at high speeds on the well-maintained Autobahns (and also on more challenging country roads). They provide convenient transportation as well as exciting entertainment for those who enjoy it. German cars are designed for high speed, and German drivers are relatively safe and skilled: according to IRTAD, in 2008, there were 2.2 road user fatalities per billion vehicle kilometers. (The comparable figure for the United States is 4.5 fatalities per billion kilometers.)
On the way from the airport to my hotel for the first night, the shuttle-bus took the autobahn for a couple of miles, traveling at a respectable 60-70 MPH. At first it was a bit of a shock when a car passed us in the left lane, apparently going twice as fast. It happened several times.
Later, riding with my cousin, I wasn't surprised that he was driving at about 110 MPH on the autobahn. What was somewhat interesting was doing it in his 12-year-old Ford Escort...and living to tell the tale. I suspect he may have imagined his Escort to be a Beamer in disguise. He is clearly accustomed to driving that way, and does it with skill and precision, even in a car clearly not intended for that type of driving.
Of course, it's not just the active men who drive - and love - their car. Discussing this with 30-something friend, a business woman, I got the impression that cars are seen as a really valuable supplement to public transportation. She uses the tram and subway on a daily basis to get around the city in Düsseldorf, but for grocery shopping and visits to her family in a neighboring town, she prefers to use her car. Living in a moderately dense part of the city, she has to pay extra for a parking spot, but the expense is worth it for her.
Bottom line: Germans love their cars and their good roads. They keep building more, too: we drove through several on-going autobahn widening projects, and as I write this (in a train!) we just crossed over what appears to be a totally new autobahn under construction.
At the same time, Germany has one of the finest public transportation systems in the world. Clearly they've found a way to have the best of both. Hmmm...can we do it in the U.S.?

No comments:

Post a Comment