The Circulatory System of Cities: Berlin, Germany

By: KAREESA KRON, student (HMC-’18)

If the highways and streets in Los Angeles County represent the veins of the city as the primary conduit for travel and economic activity, then the traffic and dominance of cars means that L.A. should consider improving its diet and starting to exercise. The constant clots of traffic and the lining of cars along streets lead to regular delays in critical flows and prevent many citizens from traveling efficiently. Prior to this summer, I had never imagined a life without traffic or a life where people could quickly traverse large cities. When I left California for the first significant length of time to travel to Berlin this summer, I found myself facing several months dependent on public transportation. Initially, this dependence made me wary, and I planned into my commute the hours of delays that I had experienced using public transportation before. The map of the public transport in Berlin amazed me in its excellent coverage of the city but failed to prepare me for the extremely punctual roll of trains through the stations. The U-Bahns (subway) and S-Bahns (commuter rail) would whoosh into the stations every five minutes and the murmuring crowds of Germans and tourists would scuttle aboard quickly so that the beeping doors did not force them to wait a few more minutes. In around half an hour, you could step off on a different corner of the city. The flow of people through all parts of the city was difficult to understand and even more difficult to acclimate to. The trains, trams, and subways acted as smooth arteries for carrying people and connecting them to the parts of the city they needed to visit. No matter where we went in Berlin, we could be confident that a station was only around a ten-minute walk from where we were. These quick, highly efficient trains enable a city of 3.5 million to flow and ebb smoothly and peacefully around the clock.

The trains not only serve as people movers, they also serve as sources of food and income for many. Rather than personally recycle one’s glass or plastic, Berlin residents often leave their recyclables on the ground next to trash bins. This habit allows less fortunate residents to easily collect recyclables and exchange them for money at local supermarkets where robotic machines sort the plastics and glasses. Musicians wander throughout the city by train making music in exchange for recognition and some spare change. Family-owned food stands sell pastries and sandwiches for less than three euros (~$3.40) to people from all walks of life as they bustle to work, home or wherever the train takes them. Often, people leave leftover food in easy to identify spots around stations so that a half a watermelon is not wasted and instead feeds another hungry soul. This system of passing along food to avoid waste is just one way in which Germany reduces inefficiency and attempts to care for the least fortunate. The portion sizes in Europe may be smaller and the average German comes off as rough, but their sense of community and their faith in each other allows them to share excess everyday and to support one another without personal loss. In America, sharing your wealth or food takes effort and can feel unnatural or unwelcome, but Berliners are so connected that sharing with one another is expected and simple. The connections made through public transportation and the attention given to efficiency evolved into a rhythm of exchange that is subtle but invaluable. Perhaps by expecting a little more of our own transportation systems and each other, we in the United States can make small efforts towards reducing emissions, inequality, and food waste in our cities.

The research I conducted during my stay in Berlin helped me explore related topics and better understand the role of policies in encouraging the sort of behaviors I noticed throughout the summer. My research topics spanned from making country-wide recommendations on energy efficiency policies to identifying economic indicators of sustainability in the marine economy. Along the way, I developed website content for a project designed to educate people on reducing food waste both through policy management and personal tools and mapped the carbon dioxide emissions of all new passenger vehicles sold in the European Union in the past ten years. These projects may seem scattered in their emphasis, but they all focus on the shared goal of protecting the planet through small, smart utilizations of limited resources. In the same way that the trains themselves cannot claim to be solely responsible for the connections made across Berlin, these individual projects are not going to fix global, environmental problems alone. Instead, each project is a passenger on the train, interacting with each other, sharing resources, and participating in the system that is moving towards a healthier planet. My experiences in Berlin connect me to the efforts of those projects and show me how much room for growth there still is. Our trains in the United States may not arrive on time or go where I wish they would, but that just means I will have to push to lay new tracks and develop a better system. Our policies are similar in their potential for improvement and I look forward to a future filled with individual effort and community development.