MUNICH: Traffic turnaround

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4 minutes

Mobility – the way people and goods get around – causes 25%-35% of the toxic CO2 emissions that are threatening human life on earth, depending on who’s counting.

Munich officials have said publicly for at least three years that the city should be climate-neutral by 2035.

For some, talk is no longer enough. They believe transportation in car-crazy Munich has to change.

To force attention to what they consider slow political reaction, young men and women are super-glueing themselves to Munich streets, highways and airport runways and throwing mashed potatoes at old masters in the galleries. Even buttoned-down businessmen have joined in.

“Klimaterroristen” (climate terrorists) was chosen as the worst German word of the year in 2023.

The international auto show in Munich added “mobility” to its name

During the three years I’ve been reading Munich papers daily, practically every kind of political proposition — budget, housing, traffic, education — has been framed within the effort to head off the disastrous effects of an overheating atmosphere.

City planners in Nuremberg and Munich are questioning generations of assumptions behind use of public space, especially how they made driving and parking easier.

Today, many of those assumptions are being turned on their heads. In many cases, it’s cars vs. bikers and pedestrians. They’ve even got a word for it — Verkerhswende (traffic turnaround).

One of the biggest casualties will be car and truck traffic. In the future, it will be even more difficult for motorists to move around the city and find a parking space.

According to a 2017 citizens’ petition (hugely powerful here), at least 80% of traffic in the downtown area should be via emission-free motor vehicles, local public transport, as well as pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as early as 2025. 

It’s hard to imagine the effect of that on a city that prizes driving fast, expensive cars. Some call this city — home of BMW — “Autostadt München” (“car city Munich”).

Often quoted is a BMW study that found that Munich has 60% more cars than Berlin, even though Berlin has nearly three times the population.

Surveys also say Munich has the worst traffic in Germany. Drivers here spend 74 hours a year in traffic jams (the national average is 40, in the U.S. about 50).

If you want people to quit driving, you have to offer them truly viable alternatives.

Today, planners are reconsidering the way humans interact with cars, trams, buses, subways, light rail, bikes and scooters — and each other. Experiments affect streets, traffic lights, sidewalks, parking, housing and stores. 

In preparation for the 1972 Olympics, the S-Bahn (regional train) and U-Bahn (subway) networks were expanded spectacularly underground. But that was 50 years ago.

At the time, around 160,000 passengers used the network every day. Today, it’s estimated at 950,000.

Malfunctions of rails, switches and signals occur almost daily in about 60 miles of tunnels. Each malfunction ripples through the system, often creating delays or shutting down the routes for hours.

Part of the solution is construction of a 5-mile train tunnel east to west under the heart of the city.

The second trunk would facilitate more trains more often, while also providing an alternative way across the city when an incident blocks traffic on the decades-old main line. Overall, service is to improve by 40%, relieving the stretch that has become the busiest in Europe.


Recently, it was announced that completion of the second trunk, estimated for 2028, would be delayed nine years to 2037. The cost would double to more than $7 billion.

One concern was the impact the delay could have on the city’s plans for a carbon-neutral future.

Planners want to make more room for bikers and walkers, and that room will come from auto lanes and parking. Sidewalks are not just a matter of width and removing obstructions but part of an effort to make the city a place where people want to linger and live.

The planning response includes electric cars and trucks, car-sharing, new subway and tram routes, closed streets, permanent 8-foot-wide bicycle lanes, clear sidewalks, expensive parking, lower speeds on streets and highways — and a city department just for mobility. 

Munich is committed to a bike ring around the old city and safe, “high-speed” bike lanes along the most popular commuter and enthusiast paths throughout the city.

A city study imagines the car highway around the old city — busiest in the country — virtually cleared of privately owned autos. That includes surcharges 10 times higher for residents who own cars. Parking fees would be charged everywhere in the city, costing more than $20 a day.

City council can make a decision in minutes. But it takes decades to expand rail lines, build bike lanes and convert parking space to more human friendly use.

The city transport manager is talking about $40 billion by 2040 for the traffic turnaround. Critics argue that Munich already may be bumping up against the total that the city can earn and borrow for the foreseeable future.

Next: Going green


2 responses to “MUNICH: Traffic turnaround”

  1. Steve Schnipper Avatar
    Steve Schnipper

    Still public transit is much better than in San Antonio.

    Any idea why so many problems with the subways?

  2. Clint Swift Avatar

    The subway, like much of the rest of the traffic infrastructure, is old. It’s been 50 years now for much of it. Rails, electric cables, switches, lights — all creaky and worn. All break down, blocking lines, shutting down service and sending repair crews on emergency missions.

    When it happens during commuter rush hours, you can stand around for an hour or more before you find out what happened and what your next best step is. Wait? Grab the first of a couple of buses?

    That’s why hopes were pinned on the Zweite Stammbahn, the second main trunk under the city. Increase the number of cars running at peak times and provide an alternative when a fault on the main line shuts down service.

    The revelation that it won’t be ready until the last half of the 2030s (at twice the estimated cost) puts it in the same league as the Berlin airport or the Hamburg Philharmonic. Those are legendary public projects that came in a decade late at costs nobody imagined at the start.

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