German transportation system right on track

My husband, Jerry, and I stood in front of the huge schedule board that hung from the cavernous ceiling of the Frankfurt, Germany, train station. We already had our tickets, but we’d been warned to check times and tracks anyway because they can change. As it turned out, every train, bus, tram and U- Bahn (subway) we boarded during our 10-day stay in Germany (and two days in Salzburg, Austria) was about as on-time as you can get.
Nevertheless, my eyes glazed over as I tried to make sense of all the numbers and letters on the board, which changed continuously as arrivals and departures unfolded. But Jerry had done his homework; it took him only a few moments to get oriented, then we headed for the train and our second-class seats.
We had flown into Frankfurt a day-and-a-half earlier, taken a local train to within a few blocks of our hotel, and now we were headed to Wurzburg, a couple of hour’s train ride southeast of Frankfurt. Our plan was to stop en route in Aschaffenburg, a scenic town on the River Main in the northwest corner of Bavaria.
Germany is my idea of public-transit Nirvana; you can get practically anywhere anytime without a car, and everyone does. Even in Munich, which has more than 1.3 million residents, we failed to see any traffic jams — except in the public transit stations. During our two short experiences riding the autobahn (in a bus), car traffic was light.
We had heard about Germany’s wonderful transportation system, but couldn’t appreciate it until we were there. We saw kids as young as 7 and 8 hopping on and off trains, buses and the U-Bahn without adult supervision. No one seemed worried about their safety and they seemed to be pretty competent commuters. Taking a city tram is as normal for them as boarding a school bus is for us — except that school buses in this country are becoming rarer.
While there are interruptions occasionally for track repair, Germany’s public transit system is very efficient. Everything on tracks and multiple axels runs mostly on schedule, the interiors of cars are clean and most people minded their manners. The most noise generated came from crowds of kids on getting out of school, and who can blame them?
Many of the cities we visited have a wonderful system of bicycle lanes, where cyclists don’t have to compete with cars. The lanes are wide sidewalks that are divided down the middle — half for cyclists and half for pedestrians. It’s a busy thoroughfare, which may be the reason that we saw few obese people. People of all ages walk and cycle, and it’s not rare to see bicycle riders in their 60s and 70s — male and female.
German cities also have wonderful pedestrian-only malls. Munich has expansive public spaces that invite a lot of al fresco dining when the weather is warm. It was probably the memory of the long and colder-than-usual winter this year that filled the seats at sidewalk cafes and outdoor beer gardens at all hours. The diners and drinkers probably appreciated even more than we did the splendid profusion of lilacs, pansies and chestnut tree blooms that generously decorated the countryside and urban landscapes.


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