Beyond The Autobahn

Chris Ziemann's impressions of urban transportation in Germany and Europe as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow


Christopher Ziemann, AICP

Chris is a sustainable urban transportation planner. After managing the Chicago Bus Rapid Transit project in Chicago and several bike, pedestrian, and general transportation projects in Washington, DC, he was accepted into the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program to work for approximately one year with public transportation in Hamburg. Get in contact at Chris Z at beyondtheautobahn dot com or follow on Twitter @beyond_autobahn.

Importance of Branding New Transit – Hamburg’s Metrobus “M”

At least taking the bus is getting easier.
At least taking the bus is getting easier. Metrobus promotion, 2001

Branding is a key feature of any new product or service. Apple and Google are great at simple, catchy names that transform their original meanings to make something esoteric sound catchy and cool (i-anythings, the Lollipop/KitKat/Jellybean operating systems, etc.). Obviously this holds true for enhanced bus services as well, as just about everyone from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and think tanks provide some level of guidance on do’s and don’t’s.

In 2001, the Hamburger Public Transit Association (HVV) launched a new bus network, the Metrobus Network, designed to be an extension of the already extensive rail network of subways (U-Bahn), commuter rail lines (Regional Bahn), and services that fall in the between those two (S-Bahn and AKN-Linien). The idea was to consolidate and alter routes to provide a guaranteed high frequency (10 minutes or less between 6am and 9pm weekdays, but with service lasting between 4:30am and midnight) on routes that both connect to the downtown (or to rail lines to downtown), or that provide tangential service between the often radial rail lines. Incidentally, the highest-passenger count bus line in Europe is one of these Metrobus lines (the M5, with over 60,000 boardings per day 2014).

Metrobus M5 has the highest daily ridership in Europe. Bi-articulated buses with 3-4 minutes headways. Courtesy NahverkehrHamburg.
Metrobus M5 has the highest daily ridership in Europe. Bi-articulated XXL buses with 3-4 minutes headways. Courtesy NahverkehrHamburg.

The big branding question then becomes: how does the HVV show that this is not a standard bus service, but rather a bus service that borders the quality, reliability, and connectivity of rail? The name Metrobus was the first step. Not that this is a unique name, but the word “Metro” invokes ideas of rail-like quality. The next step was the numbering system: lines 1-15 lead into the city or to a local neighborhood center where a passenger can usually take a train to the city; lines 20-27 provide tangential connections. To show the customer that this was not the standard bus, the “Metrobus” name shared the space with the end station.

"Metrobus" sharing space with the end station. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann
“Metrobus” sharing space with the end station. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann

This led to difficulties in determining the direction of the buses, so the “Metrobus” was replaced with an “M” in front of the route numbers in December 2014. The 4 became the M4, similar to many express bus lines adding an “X”. HVV originally wanted to add this at the roll-out, but technologically the “M” was not possible.

M3. Photo Christian Hinkelmann
M3 Metrobus. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann

Since then, there have been many critiques of the “M,” especially from the sight-impaired community. The “M” was often confused for “11,” so that the “M3” was confused with the “113.” The city council last month voted to eliminate the “M” in this December’s annual transit update when all route changes are made.

Will this cause confusion? Will there be another branding effort? Probably not, and probably not. 15 years after the roll out, passengers are familiar with the fact that any bus route under 30 is a Metrobus route. A study was in the works to determine the effectiveness of the “M,” however with the political decision to eliminate it, that study has been cancelled. Berlin introduced the “M” in front of the route number immediately, potentially owing to the lack of complaints abou it. Munich does not have the “M,” sticking to numbering their Metrobuses 50-60, 62 and 63 and coloring the lines on the map orange. The bigger question is how much the Metrobus brand matters to passengers in deciding which route to choose, to city planners and developers looking for opportunities for to build, to new residents deciding where to live, or to potential riders who may choose other modes. There are definitely other ways to brand a premium bus service, but the benefits of branding an existing service are likely not as great as a brand new service.

Regional Transit in Hamburg at HVV


Last week I started my first of two work placements at the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund (HVV, the Hamburg Public Transport Association). It is the regional transit association overseeing all transit provision in its Metropolitan Hamburg (a great source of information, and the graphics below, is found here). I wanted to talk a little about the structure of it, since it is very different from regional transit agencies in the U.S. Important is that, similar to Washington DC, Hamburg is its own state (Bundesland). And similar to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), HVV’s coverage includes transit in the neighboring states as well.

First, public transportation in the region is organized according to the three-level model:

  • Political (meaning the government level) – this includes the City of Hamburg, the neighboring states, counties, and municipalities. There are 10 total.
  • HVV – manages the transit services based on the needs and desires of the political bodies.
  • Operators – the firms that own, manage, and operate the trains, buses, and ferries. There are 28 total.


Based on the needs and desires of the government entities, HVV puts contracts out for competitive bid to provide transit service and manages the contracts. It also monitors specific quality standards for service, cleanliness, etc. The contract however, is actually between the operator and the government entity (not HVV).

Contract Image


As a very general overview, HVV compensates the operators for transit services. The farebox revenue, which lately has covered 72% of operating costs, funnels into a funding pool. HVV distributes these funds to the operators based on formulas for kilometers driven and passengers, or based no contracts. Specific subsidy programs such as reduced fares for school students and the disabled, and general funds from government entities cover the difference. HVV also assesses financial penalties for not achieving certain service goals, and bonuses for achieving and going beyond them.


HVV plans all the service changes to the transit network. Generally a government entity, the operator, or HVV itself will propose a service change, whether it is a route or schedule modification, or an entirely new route. HVV then analyzes the proposed change for impact on ridership and confers with the operator to determine the cost of the modification. The government entity must approve the cost based on the proposed benefit. The operator is then responsible for implementing the service change (siting and installing bus stops, buying new buses, etc.).


Interestingly, there are several activities that are standard with U.S. transit agencies that are also contracted out to a specific operator per activity to perform for the entire HVV area. These include:

  • Fare and payent systems
  • Printing advertising, customer information, and customer service (including phone services)
  • Time-based passes, corporate tickets, special offers
  • Advisory services for youths and seniors
  • Cooperation and contract fares
  • Subsidies

There are also other initiatives that HVV is coordinating with all the stakeholders, such as handicapped accessibility, market research, electronic fares and sales, and multi-modal coordination.

Again, most transit agencies in the US do not operate like this. Generally planning, operations, financing, marketing, and most everything else is all done within one agency. To imagine how this system would look, I will use Chicago as an example. Many people are calling for a more regionally organized public transportation system, where currently a lot of competition exists between the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA), Metra (the commuter rail provider), and Pace Bus (the suburban bus provider). The Regional Transportation Authority plays a much less prominent role (except for its clever new marketing campaign). If Chicago transit were organized like that of Hamburg, the RTA would competitively contract out transit services to CTA, Metra and Pace (or Megabus, Van Galder, Amtrak, or whomever else would bid on them)on behalf of the City of Chicago and surrounding counties and municipalities. From the passenger perspective, s/he could use one fare (or day pass, monthly pass, etc.) to get from point A to point B regardless of mode, only paying once. This could make routes like the Loop Link, the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit which connects to Metra and Amtrak routes at Union Station and Ogilvie Center, much easier to use for commuters and visitors.


To give some background on HVV, it was founded in 1965 by four private transit operators in order to increase the transit mode share in the Hamburg region by providing a unified fare structure and coordinating schedules. In 1997, it was restructured to be an association of government entities instead of an association of operating firms. HVV was the first organization of its kind in the world, and is enjoying its 50th birthday this year.

Simple Information Makes New Transit Easy

As a first blogpost, I’ll introduce myself a bit. I’m a transportation planner from the U.S. focusing on sustainable urban transportation, and thanks to the help of a lot of people I was accepted into the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program. It started with German courses in Berlin, then a three week seminar learning about major topics in Germany and  the EU, from Stuttgart 21 to Syrian refugees to the future of the Euro. Over the course of the next year, I’ll have two work placements related to transportation planning, the first with the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund (HVV), the regional transit organization. I wanted to show that Germany’s contribution to transportation isn’t just the Autobahn, but a whole wealth of innovation that helps cities increase the quality of life of their residents, their economies and their sustainability.

Since I just moved to Hamburg last weekend, I haven’t started with the HVV yet, so I wanted to give some impressions on customer information at bus stops from Berlin. This isn’t electronic, no apps, no computer displays (although many have them), just paper. This simple information at each stop makes it very easy to use transit in a new city, or even to use a new line if you’re already familiar with the city.

Berlin map and schedule at bus stop
Berlin map and schedule at bus stop

This is standard at every bus shelter in Berlin: a real street map of a wide radius around the bus stop (in the U-bahn (subway) stations they have the entire map of Berlin) showing bus lines, tram lines, U-bahn lines, and S-bahn lines (between a subway and a commuter rail), and of course their corresponding stops. This is especially important with buses as most bus maps in the US leave out the stops. The road map, which is put out by the transit agency itself (and so it emphasizes the transit network) is also useful to people not taking the bus, like when I’m lost looking for someone’s house or just biking around on a nice day.

Berlin Bus Schedule (my comments in red)
Berlin Bus Schedule (my comments in red)

The schedule below the map shows the entire route’s stops at the top, including how many minutes to travel to each stop and which routes to transfer to (not just major transfer routes, but all routes). It also shows previous stops in gray. The bottom section shows each hour of the day per row, and each column (Monday-Friday, Saturday, and Sundays/holidays) shows the minutes after the hour that each bus comes, so in this case it is 10, 30, and 50. This means that even though this bus only runs every 20 minutes, I can easily know exactly when the bus will come by remembering 3 easy numbers (10, 30, and 50) so I’m never waiting for 20 minutes. Of course the bus was late a couple times, but for the most part this schedule was accurate.

Bus route chart inside the bus
Bus route chart inside the bus

Then, once I’m in the bus, there is a list of the entire route taped to a window, so if I’m unsure how many more stops I have, I can just look at this. Also notice that it shows how many minutes from the starting point (and between stops, with a little ‘rithmatic) and the transfer routes.

Tram schedule with 10-minute headways
Tram schedule with 10-minute headways

To show a schedule with a higher frequency, this tramline’s headway is 10 minutes most of the day, but exactly 10 minutes, so a passenger would only need to remember one number, in this case 3 (because the tram comes 3, 13, 23, etc. minutes past the hour).

Even though this information is not online (although by now it is), one can easily navigate a new transit system with simple and clear information and headways.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑