Kerry is a first year Master’s student in Journalism. She is spending time this summer in Leipzig, Germany to perform research on identity communication in post-Socialist societies for her thesis.
“The most important thing in the United States is to have a car,” remarked a German student visiting Ohio University.
In Leipzig and elsewhere in Germany, such is not the case. Leipzig’s citizens certainly do use cars, but tram and bicycle are the most popular forms of transportation, especially for students. In fact, pedestrians in the center of the city have to be careful when crossing the street that they are not stepping out into the path of an oncoming bicycle or a moving tram, though careless drivers are most certainly a danger on busy roads. A well-developed train system enables residents to get out of the city, region, or country when they choose and many destinations are within a few hours’ travel time. A traveler used to cars could be easily spoiled by the efficient, easy-to-use public transportation system in Germany!
For anyone who has lived in a city without reliable and accessible public transportation, the tram system in Leipzig is a dream. Most trams run regularly every ten or fifteen minutes. They are clean, comfortable, and quiet. Their passengers are everyday people: students, workers, mothers and babies, the elderly, and even pet owners, cyclists with flat tires, and groups of school children. At night, the cars and the stations are well lit and continue to be occupied by regular people, even if some of those regular people may be a little inebriated, especially after a soccer game. Learning how to read the tram route map is as simple as understanding which tram and stop correspond with a desired location and that the end points of each tram line determine the direction in which the tram heads. For example, the #2 tram runs into the city center and beyond to the end station Naunhoffer Strasse, and the same tram line towards Grunau, the other direction, goes to the dorm rooms. Most people who live in the city go by a mental tram map that they have developed over the course of daily use. For newcomers, the physical tram maps become fairly easy to read after a few days of practice.
Bicycles are everywhere in Leipzig. They’re so popular that bike garages near the university fill up quickly even when some students choose to park their bikes outdoors. Bikes are available for rent, but many people, especially those who will be in the city for an extended period, find used bikes for affordable prices and pass them on to someone else before they leave. Because bike riding is so prevalent, riders must abide by certain rules: no bike riding while drunk, the bike must be registered, and the bike must have a light on the front for nighttime. Special bike paths, many marked handily with the symbol of a bicycle, separate riders from pedestrians on sidewalks, through parks, and even at crosswalks. Students are not the only people who ride bikes. Whole families can be seen on bicycles, and children who are too young to ride their own bikes are strapped into carriages and pulled along behind their parents’ bikes.
For getting out the city, nothing compares to rail. Leipzig is connected to several cities (Berlin) or smaller destinations (Wittenberg, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a church door and began the Reformation). Ticket machines provide assistance in German, English, and French, though reading the time tables for train departures and arrivals may take some practice. Many trains are new and clean with easy-to-read marquees that announce stops, well-designed storage, and comfortable, supportive seats. Backpackers, with their sleeping bags and tent rolls, are a familiar sight on the train, but day trippers and family members visiting relatives use it, too. In Leipzig, it is possible to get from A to B without worry over gas prices, weather conditions, or other drivers. Probably the most important thing here is to have a valid ticket, or in the case of bicycles, a proper license. Hefty fines are imposed on those who take advantage of the system, and irregular inspections serve to keep people honest.