Sustainable Transport Policy in Munich: A Conversation with Chelsea Tschoerner

On September 1, I Skype-interviewed Chelsea Tschoerner. Ms. Tschoerner is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Freiburg, studying sustainable mobility in Munich. She told me quite a bit about Munich and its interesting constellation of actors. We then discussed how lessons from her work apply more generally to sustainability policy research.

Munich and the Economy: Munich is Germany’s “economic powerhouse.” After WWII, some big industrial players like Siemens moved to Munich from Berlin, and Munich has been growing rapidly since then. Since Munich’s well-being is tied so closely to the economy, economic growth and interests play an important role in policy-making.

A Structure of Thinkers and Doers: Munich’s government is split into “thinkers” (City Council) and “doers” (the administration). Structurally, policy proposals are first passed through the City Council, and then the policies themselves are written and implemented by the relevant administrative department. However, as Ms. Tschoerner mentioned, “What takes place behind the scenes in terms of policy-making is nevertheless much more complex and gray. Germany is generally bureaucratic, but new approaches to policy-making and new actors can be seen within and in between these bureaucratic structures.”

An Involved Public: According to Ms. Tschoerner, “The public speaks for themselves — a lot.” Green City, a nonprofit funded 60% by the City, conducts many projects to (as Ms. Tschoerner put it) “show that with action, the urban environment can be improved.” One such project, called Wanderbaumalle, involves moving potted trees every few months between specific city streets without much greenery. In another project, called Park(ing) Day, car parking spaces are temporarily turned into public parks. In addition to Green City, Munich also has 25 neighborhood councils (Bezirksausschüsse) dedicated to neighborhood-specific issues. Citizens can send policy proposals to City Council through their neighborhood councils.

Automotive Presence: ADAC (the world’s largest public interest group for cars) and BMW (the car company) are both headquartered in Munich. Surprisingly, both organizations engage positively in Munich’s sustainable transit efforts.

  • ADAC attempts to reduce traffic in the city center by encouraging people to use public transit and park-and-ride systems. The club’s transport department has emphasized environmental issues since the 1980s, with initiatives such as pushing strongly for vehicle catalyzers to reduce emissions/particulate matter in cities. The department also ranks various cities’ public transit systems and looks for ecologically friendly taxis.
  • BMW wasn’t always supportive of public transit efforts. In fact, it got into a “policy war” with the City of Munich in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when Munich’s Planning Department and SPD/Green Party majority coalition called for restrictive measures on cars.* In 1995, Christian Ude (mayor of Munich from 1993-2014) started something called the Inzell Initiative to mediate this “war.” This closed-door Initiative brought together the public and private sectors to discuss all forms of transport planning in Munich. While the Initiative itself had no political power, it provided BMW with a platform to communicate expertise and shape policy. BMW then continued to be involved in planning. Now, BMW actively collaborates with the public transit agency and local administration to experiment with multi-modal transit in Munich, and the company also recently produced a new CO2-neutral electric car. BMW’s end goal is still to sell cars, but with the German government’s Energiewende and emphasis on public transit/car-sharing, the company has realized that it has to try new things in Germany.

Munich’s Electric Utility: Stadtwerke München manages Munich’s electricity and transportation systems. It is a private entity, so although it’s owned entirely by the City, it is technically situated outside the governmental structure. As Ms. Tschoerner put it, the München therefore “sees its role as a consultant to the local administration and politicians, especially on issues of energy, mobility, IT, etc.”** The Stadtwerke pushes strongly for renewables and public transit expansion in Munich. While the Stadtwerke often agrees with the city, it is important to understand that it is an independent entity with its own views and interests.

The Federal and EU Levels: While Munich’s buses, subways, and street cars are organized at the local level, its commuter trains are owned by the federal-level Deutsche Bahn. Therefore, some transit planning in Munich (such as commuter train expansion) has to be approved at both the local and federal levels. Otherwise, however, the federal level plays only a background role in Munich’s transportation system. The federal government’s role in mobility and the Energiewende is to shape the policy vision, provide funding, and spur local-level action.
….Ms. Tschoerner described the EU as a “new quasi-federal” entity that doesn’t really have decision making power. Although it can pass binding environmental measures, such as the European Emission Standards, entities such as Munich often still avoid implementation. While the EU cannot directly exert influence on Munich, it can indirectly exert influence by placing pressure on the German Federal Government and State of Bavaria. External organizations can also exert pressure on behalf of the EU. For instance, an NGO called DeutscheUmwelthilfe is suing a number of German Federal States for not meeting EU nitrogen dioxide pollution standards, and Munich – which has been breaking EU emissions standards for decades – is one of the cities affected by this suit.

Generalizable Insights: One generalizable insight from Ms. Tschoerner’s research, she said, was that you can’t just look at the policy documents actors have written when examining sustainable mobility or sustainability. You have to look at the little things these actors do to try to change the system.
….Another insight was that Munich’s people don’t care about CO2 emissions as much as they care about how they move and prosper. Those in Munich working for change see the connections between energy, transportation, mobility, working, and living a good life, and they act accordingly. For instance, some of Munich’s citizens put on a cycling campaign, and the campaign wasn’t as much about infrastructure or energy as it was about making cycling seem cool. The team put on a cycling fashion show and took photos to document their lives, with the goal of creating a more sustainable culture. The takeaway is that all these sustainability measures and policies tie back directly to how people want to live. Sustainable energy, transport, food, etc. are all connected, and when we talk about sustainability policy, we should consider all these aspects together.

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* This conflict occurred in the wake of the 1970s-80s oil crisis and other background events that reflected what Ms. Tschoerner called “a larger shift in transport planning – the need to expand public transport in the event of an energy crisis.” [back]

** Expertise plays an important role in Munich’s policy-making. This mindset is evident in Stadtwerke München’s positioning as a “consultant,” and BMW’s positioning as a transit expert within the Inzell Initiative. Munich has historically focused on city planning, and Munich’s Department of City Planning and Building Regulation is perhaps Germany’s strongest urban planning department. [back]

(Note: The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)

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