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Thursday August 18th 2022

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Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg


Complete Streets

I recently came across an interesting article by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher about the city of Freiburg, Germanyand its transportation system and planning since WWII (when it was 80% destroyed by Allied bombing raids). The city isn’t so different from Boulder, Colorado, but it’s a lot further down the path to sustainability than we are. In fact, their transportation mode split today is roughly what Boulder has laid out as our long-term goal in our Transportation Master Plan: less than 1/3 of all trips are made in cars. Fully half of trips are done under human power (23% walking, 27% biking), with another 18% via the city’s 4 tram lines and many feeder buses. The transit system covers 90% of its operating costs from the fare-box, with most people buying monthly flat-rate unlimited use passes for around $50. Around 2/3 of all citizens and all jobs are located within a 3 minute walk from a tram line, and the trams run ~every 5 minutes during peak hours. Households in the US spend about $8000/year on transportation, or $2700 more per year than Germans do, and it ends up being a higher proportion of our overall household expenditures (19% vs. 14%). You might think that that’s just because the government is spending more on their behalf, but actually their total governmental spending is also lower—$460/year vs. our $640/year. All this, and Freiburg’s per capita transportation GHG emissions are only 29% of the US average. So the idea that a high-quality, low-carbon transportation system has to be expensive is a myth.

Münstermarkt 6

The city itself has a population of about 230,000 (a bit more than double that of Boulder), and an area of 153 sq km (vs. our 65 sq km), giving the two cities almost identical overall population densities (1,500 ppl/sq km). However, that’s a bit deceptive, since 46% of Freiburg’s territory is actually forest preserves and other conservation areas (they’ve got a very robust open space program) meaning that their actual population density is more like 2,800 ppl/sq km—close to double Boulder’s density. This is still far below Big City density, and there are plenty of quiet residential neighborhoods. In fact, as of 2008, more than 90% of residents lived in traffic calmed areas with speed limits of 30 km/hr (19 mph), and a further 177 neighborhoods had by petition become “home zones” where cars can go no faster than walking speed, and children are able to safely play in the streets at any time. One result is that Freiburg’s traffic fatality rate is about a quarter that of the US (and half that of Germany).

Block interiors in Rieselfeld

So how did they get to this place? In 1948, the city decided to re-build along the lines of its medieval roots, but by their first land-use plan in 1955 they’d shifted toward auto-centric development priorities, with the margins of the city expanding substantially at suburban densities. The oil shocks of the 1970s and the galvanization of the green movement by plans to build a nuclear power station nearby spurred them to change direction, and the second auto-centric land-use plan, developed in the mid-1960s, was never implemented. Instead, they renovated their light-rail lines and began expanding them, started creating a connected network of bicycle paths, and directed growth and development to take place along the public transit network corridors, ensuring that such developments were mixed use. The city’s land-use plan today identifies 30 neighborhood commercial centers, supporting small retail businesses within easy walking distance of most people. They call it a “city of short distances.” The city center is off-limits to cars, with parking garages at the margins. Meanwhile, the city’s population has grown faster than the region’s, and its economy has grown faster than Germany’s as a whole on a per-capita basis.

Herbst in FreiburgFreiburg has used both carrots and sticks—to make biking and walking and transit attractive, while removing structural incentives that encourage people to drive, like free parking and large socialized investments in road infrastructure. The result has been that their transportation system is cheaper, safer, more equitable and much more sustainable than ours. We should try and learn from them.

Further reading:

Weihnachtszauber (Christmas Magic)

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Reader Feedback

4 Responses to “Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg”

  1. Fenno Hoffman says:

    Zane, great article. Freiburg im Breisgau has “about twice the density” of Boulder – yes. It also has a major rail line running through it, and downtown streets, with block after block of five and six story buildings with zero setbacks, and very different parking requirements. If Boulder changed it’s height limit to 110ft/70ft, and radically revamped our suburban land use codes, and relocated much of our population now living in sprawling subdivisions, into five and six story apartment buildings, like the ones that line so many of Freiburg’s streets, we would change everything.

    Instead, “Ruth Wright is being honored by PLAN-Boulder for her historic efforts championing the ballot initiative for a charter amendment limiting building heights to 55 feet in the City of Boulder. After 40+ years, this has turned out to be a visionary measure that has preserved our views of the mountain backdrop, shaped our city, and maintained our economic vitality.”

    Well, you see, that’s not exactly the whole story, is it. I know and respect Ruth Wright, and her ideas were visionary at a time when driving everywhere was fine, and housing was affordable, and few people walked, unless they were on recreational trails.

    Since then, however, one could argue that Wright’s charter amendment (the 35ft/55ft height limits) have contributed to the economic vitality, not of Boulder, but of the regional “L-towns” beyond our Open Space moat; the towns that today house most of our working families.

    You could also argue that the height limit precisely outlaws exactly tthe kind of walkable and transit friendly density that you so eloquently celebrate in your excellent article about Freiburg.

    Boulder has chosen to legislate, and celebrate, and award, things that actually prevent exactly what we need to happen, to stop climate change.

    We ARE doing some things. Sam & Leonard are fighting for net-zero buildings, which is great – but that only attacks the very fringes of the problem. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS NET-ZERO SUBURBAN SPRAWL. So eventually, we will have to question our priorities. Do we want low density sprawl, OR, do we want to save the planet. We can’t have both, I’m sad to say.

    Keep up the good work – Freiburg looks like a much more beautiful, dynamic, and forward looking town than Boulder, even though it was incorporated in the twelfth century!

  2. Fenno Hoffman says:

    pardon typos it’s and tthe

  3. Kurt Nordback says:

    Fenno, you’re right that we aren’t going to achieve our climate goals without moving beyond our suburban-density development model. There’s a lot of wishful thinking that this isn’t so, but given cultural and economic realities, increased density is necessary. Despite all the money we’ve poured into transit service and multi-use paths and so on (all of which I appreciate), our per capita vehicle miles travelled is higher than, to pick two examples, that of Greeley and Colorado Springs. Clearly, business as usual isn’t working.

    But relaxing the height limits is absolutely the wrong way to do it. Allowing taller buildings would just create a less human-scale city, not to mention blocking views and sunlight. We could easily attain sustainable densities while staying within the current height limits if we revised other, outmoded parts of the zoning code that are based on a suburban development model. In particular we should:
    1. Relax the restrictions on accessory units, alley houses, and the like. Allowing more of these would provide desperately-needed market-rate affordable housing while preserving the embodied energy of our existing housing stock.
    2. Eliminate lot size minimums, which were introduced for the express purpose of keeping out moderate-income residents. It’s unconscionable for us to retain these today.
    3. Allow, or even encourage, row houses, which provide moderate density, efficient use of materials and energy, and a family-friendly design. Look at the row houses at 417-433 Mapleton for a paragon of sustainability; and yet, it would be prohibited to build these beloved homes today in most of Boulder. What’s wrong with this picture?

    And remember that density is only a part of the equation: it’s necessary, but not sufficient. “Density, diversity, design” is the mantra of sustainable land use, and yet density gets the preponderance of the attention. We need to pay equal mind to allowing a greater diversity of uses, and to the subtle but all-important aspects of people-friendly design.

  4. Zane Selvans says:

    […] However, I think that this is really too narrow a focus. Co-housing developments like Wild Sage in North Boulder and housing cooperatives like the ones developed by the Boulder Housing Coalition make use of multi-dwelling buildings, and yet can provide many of the amenities that draw families to detached houses, especially quiet outdoor spaces that are safe for children, and a sense of neighborhood community. They can also be much more resource efficient than standard single-family dwellings. Looking further afield, one can find examples of entire neighborhoods designed with these goals in mind, like Quartier Vauban, in Freiburg, Germany. […]

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