Seamless connections: Leipzig, Germany has multiple transportation modes, and transitions are smooth

LEIPZIG, Germany -- Many travelers arrive in Leipzig on high-speed trains, which stop in the city's historic center. From there, getting around is easy, even for those who have never been to eastern Germany.

Outside the Hauptbahnhof station, there are sidewalks, bike lanes, automobile lanes and tracks for a modern, electrified tram. The various transportation modes are lined up on the street in neat rows, like a layer cake.

Why is it so easy to move people and goods seamlessly in some places, like Leipzig, but not others? That was among the questions addressed as hundreds of dignitaries, mobility experts and others visited Leipzig early this month to attend the International Transport Forum.

As cities look for ways to reduce traffic congestion, many experts say the places that focus on making seamless connections will have the most success, in terms both of growing their economies and just making residents and visitors happy. It's not about building roads to handle traffic volume, they say; it's about using technology and common sense to make it easier for people to switch between modes.

"Last century was the century of the automobile. The next century will be the century of the smart, intermodal model," said Rudiger Grube, chairman of Deutsche Bahn, a corporation that operates the German railway.

In Leipzig, the quiet tram cars come and go every few minutes. They are modern, sleek and clean, but not much different from the streetcars that ran in city centers throughout the United States, including in Fort Worth, until the middle of the 20th century.

Cycling is also huge in Leipzig, and the bike lanes are usually humming with activity, rain or shine. Motorists don't seem to mind the presence of so many bikes. It is customary for drivers to allow groups of cyclists to finish passing through an intersection even after the traffic signal has changed -- without honking or gesturing.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung cautioned that while his city is multimodal, it isn't a traffic utopia. For example, he sometimes hears from residents who say the cyclists are too aggressive around pedestrians. Also, he said, it took many years to modernize the roads to accommodate a surge of car traffic, which tripled in the city after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The key, he said, is for traffic planners to pay attention to all the little details associated with people using multiple forms of transportation on a single journey. Each mode, he said, should have a place on the road.

"It's a complicated thing to organize traffic in 'shared rooms' -- the equality of pedestrians and bikes and cars and public traffic," he said. "It's a secret to organize it in a very smooth way, and our main thing is to organize public transportation by trams."

Bouncing back

Each year, representatives of the 54 countries that make up the International Transport Forum gather in Leipzig to tackle some of the challenges they face moving people and freight not only across their borders, but within their cities. The think tank began as mostly a European effort but now includes Asian members such as China and Japan, North American nations such as the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and even a South American member, Chile.

Leipzig is a busy city of about a half-million residents a 70-minute train ride south of Berlin. After German reunification, the former communist East German city suffered a brain drain as it lost a fourth of its population. But Leipzig is bouncing back with transportation-related job growth. Major local employers include the delivery company DHL, and automakers BMW and Porsche.

The city also has a direct connection to the Trans-Siberian railway, making it possible for BMW to ship auto parts to its facility in Shenyang, China, in just 23 days -- half the time it would take by sea.

The systems are a tribute not just to planning, but also to a method of finance that other cities may not be able to follow easily.

Leipzig and other cities in the former East Germany have benefited from a "solidarity tax" paid on the incomes of German workers since reunification in 1990. The equivalent of tens of billions of dollars (Germany uses the EU currency, the euro) have been spent on roads, airports and other public works needed to help people and goods move seamlessly.

On Leipzig's outskirts, Autobahn 9 is now freshly paved and pothole-free, and on the 118-mile drive to Berlin, motorists go under several dozen overpasses built since 1994.

The high-speed railroad tracks running parallel to another motorway, Autobahn 14, feature expensive concrete ties. Between Leipzig and Halle, a massive renovation is under way at a regional airport -- the one used by DHL as an air freight hub.

Meanwhile, cities in western Germany, where the bulk of the solidarity tax comes from, are showing serious signs of wear. Although the tax is scheduled to continue through 2019, some Germans want to end it sooner, or at least spread some of the money to cities in the west.

"Some people are saying, if an area has been getting money for more than 20 years and hasn't made it, it's probably not going to make it," said Oliver Aust, who grew up in western Germany and is now an international relations expert for Berlin's new Brandenburg Airport, a $3.5 billion project that is scheduled to open in east Berlin this year. "At some point, you're throwing good money after bad."

Many U.S. cities know what it's like to have a multimodal dream put on hold for a lack of funding. Fort Worth could have built a new streetcar system in 2010, but instead chose to send a $25 million federal transit grant back to Washington unspent.

City officials worried at the time that they couldn't come up with perhaps $63 million more in local funds to make the streetcar program work. Also, the streetcars would have served downtown, the museum and medical districts, and developments planned on the near north side, but they couldn't have brought many workers to their jobs.

Since the streetcar failure, Fort Worth officials have turned a sharper pencil to the proposed commuter rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, a project expected to cost more than $750 million and serve thousands of commuters each day.

Creative thinking is the key to making all forms of transport safer and seamless for movement of people and freight, said Angel Gurria of Mexico. Gurria is secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the umbrella organization for the International Transport Forum.

"There is no reason why a country that is flexible enough, and politically courageous enough, can't take the best policies and not necessarily imitate then but try to adapt them," he said.

Gordon Dickson was among a handful of journalists worldwide awarded a media grant by the International Transport Forum to cover the event in Leipzig, Germany.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson