Who needs an auto to be mobile? | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 07.02.2011
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Who needs an auto to be mobile?

Even here in car-mad Germany, millions don't drive. Rather than hitting the highways, they wait on crowded commuter trains. You might think it's a sad existence, but some - including DW's Andreas Becker - prefer it.

A man sleeping on a train

You can't doze on the roads

Sometimes, when I'm in a good mood, I will wave to my chauffeur as he approaches. Then I'll hop onto the back seat, and let him drive off. There's no need for me to tell him where we're heading; he already knows.

While he sits in front and ensures that we reach our destination safely, I put my feet up, maybe leaf through a book and then settle down for a snooze - he'll let me know when we arrive. I feel like a king.

I'm riding the train.

The daily commute

Admittedly, not every day is perfect. Sometimes the chauffeur arrives late, and occasionally, he doesn't come at all. And then, when he does turn up, all the seats are taken. Then I'll spend the journey on my feet, often squeezed between people who are talking loudly on their cell phones or being generally discourteous.

People on a crowded train carriage

No one said the system was perfect!

It's during these moments that I close my eyes and dream that age old dream of freedom and individuality, which the car seemingly realized so long ago.

Those four wheels can be the very definition of free will: simply jump in and drive off, wherever you want, whenever you want. This pledge helped make the car into a legend that was celebrated in countless films. What would have become of James Dean's youthful rebelliousness, of Steve McQueen's sub-zero chase scenes, or of James Bond's lethal gadgets without that trusty motorized steed?

DW's Andreas Becker

DW's business writer Andreas Becker is happier without wheels

But the French avant-garde film producer Jean-Luc Goddard showed the other side of this coin as early as 1967. In the film "Weekend," you are taken on a grinding eight-minute, stop-start journey through a traffic jam. There's no need to rush out and buy the film; if you've driven through any major city, you already know the story.

Greater freedom

A few years ago, I gave up my car. I live in a major city, where it's usually cheaper, more comfortable and faster to travel by bus, bike or train. It's certainly kinder to the environment, too.

There are no traffic jams, no endless searches for parking spaces, and no parking tickets either. No hefty bills at the garage, no exhaust emissions tests, no congestion fees, no need to change tires in winter, no road tax, no insurance.

I'd almost like to assert that getting rid of that classic automotive symbol of freedom has liberated me.

But that's a slight exaggeration. Without a car, I'm dependent on train timetables, and am at the mercy of engine faults, track damage, signaling problems and all those other "disruptions to normal service," for which the bus and train operators are forever apologizing and requesting my understanding.

A highway traffic jam

"If those selfish so-and-so's had stayed home, I'd be on time"

Even the motorist's endless moans about the price of fuel have been replaced with my own despair at rising fares. Life's imperfect, whether you own a car or not.

Bearing the burdens

Motorists and public transport users differ in how they deal with their plights. As individual commuters, motorists must rely on themselves. To arrive more quickly, they need a faster car; for greater comfort, a more luxurious model is required; and to avoid breakdowns, regular checks at the garage are necessary.

Then, if you're stuck in a traffic jam, the only solution is to leap off the chosen road and hope the satellite navigation system can dream up an alternative route. Often the queuing can lead to self-recriminations: 'If only I'd left earlier, or later. And why didn't I listen to the radio traffic announcements instead of that stupid CD?'

Next, drivers begin to insult all their fellow motorists; after all, they're at fault for the congestion on the road, and besides, they have the driving talent of a lobotomized goldfish.

Passengers wait on a platform at Stuttgart central station

On the trains, there's a culture of shared suffering

Train travelers are a wholly different breed. By virtue of many a difficult lesson on a freezing platform, they have learned to simply accept certain hardships. The train might arrive, and it might not - but for now, waiting's the only option. Remember, patience is a virtue.

Fellow commuters don't become opponents; they remain blameless in the affair. If they weren't waiting, the train still wouldn't have arrived - you'd just be stuck on a cold platform all by yourself, and there'd be nobody with whom you could grumble about the useless public transport network.

Learning to share

Nevertheless, there are moments when it's more sensible or convenient to go by car. Then I will either take a cab, or rent a car, often using a popular German system called "CarSharing." This process makes me feel like a king, too. A whole fleet of some 300 vehicles is at my beck and call, around the clock - from compact cars to minivans, clean, fully-tanked and spread across dozens of garages around the city. My closest CarSharing garage is five minutes walk from home. I can make a reservation by phone or online at any time, and then pay after using the vehicle.

Unlike normal car rental services, with CarSharing it's possible to hire by the hour, so I can borrow a city runabout for a couple of hours and drive it 20 kilometers at a total cost of 10 euros ($14).

A Daimler Carsharing parking lot filled with small cars

Even major carmakers are launching car-sharing schemes

All major German cities have a CarSharing scheme. Some of them are even offering electric cars now. Using this service means I can avoid the drawbacks of car ownership, from mechanical upkeep to problems parking. I only pay if I drive, and because I'm not the only person using the car, it's almost always in use, which - economically and ecologically speaking - is the most efficient way to run a vehicle.

Patience is a virtue

Committed car enthusiasts would say that this is all well and good, but it still constrains personal freedom. At least in theory, it's possible that no car is available at the precise moment it's needed, neither at a CarSharing garage nor at a traditional rental office.

Personally, I have never experienced this problem, but the prospect of it doesn't faze me. Faced with that scenario, I'd just wait. And let's face it: my years of train travel have prepared me perfectly.

Author: Andreas Becker (msh)
Editor: John Blau

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