Buses, long-distance train, and light rail at the main train station of Freiburg, Germany. Image by the author.

This is the second post in a three-part series on improving the transit experience in the Washington metro area through enhanced coordination among multiple transit operators. This was a recommendation made in the Greater Washington Partnership’s Blueprint for Regional Mobility, the first CEO-led mobility strategy for the Capital Region, which stretches from Baltimore to Richmond, released in Fall 2018. It was also published by the Greater Washington Partnership. Read part 1.

The Washington metro area has extensive and diverse transit options, but fragmentation of its operators and the lack of a central coordinating body diminish their effectiveness and make them collectively less competitive. Ridership has declined 15% from 2012 to 2017.

Years ago, public transportation in peer regions in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria faced similar challenges. In response, local governments and public transit providers banded together to create regional coordinating associations—called Verkehrsverbund or VVs—that integrate all aspects of public transit. As a result, their transit networks are far ahead of the Washington metro area’s—or any US transit system—in terms of accessibility, ease of use, and level of service—generating transit ridership more than twice that of the Washington area.

This article discusses how such regional transit entities operate, the benefits experienced by the region’s consumers, and lessons learned that can be used to inform transit improvements in our region.

Figure 1: Map of VVs in Germany (63), Switzerland (1), and Austria (7) (highlighted VVs displaying year founded, population, and land area covered

Image by the author from Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

VV regions have certain similarities to the Washington metro area. First, they are located in countries that have federal, state, and local government structures with varying responsibilities for transportation funding and policies, just as the Washington area does. Their regions span multiple jurisdictions and have many transit providers, just as Washington’s does. A main cause for the first VV’s creation was to counteract steep ridership declines, a similar situation to the one the metro area faces today.

Table 1: Overview of government and transportation agencies collaborating in six case study VVs

Name City Number of collaborators in Verkehrsverbund
States Suburban counties/districts Large cities Public transport operators
MVV Munich 1 8 1 55
HVV Hamburg* 3 7 1 29
VOR Vienna* 3 0 1 41
VBB Berlin* 2 14 5 42
ZVV Zurich 1 168 1 51
VRR 19 cities 1 7 19 39

* Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna are not only cities, but also federal states. Thus they appear in both columns.
Table from Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Second, similar to the Washington area, many residents of these regions own cars, particularly in suburban areas. As shown in Table 2, car ownership in the Washington metro area is comparable to car ownership in the six highlighted regions, though on the higher end.

Table 2: Private vehicle use in six highlighted VVs, 2015 and Washington metro area, 2017

Verkehrsverbund Core City Motorization Rates
(Cars/Light Trucks per 1,000)
Core City Outside of Core City
HVV Hamburg 404 590
MVV Munich 493 796
VOR Vienna 394 960
ZVV Zurich 368 583
VBB Berlin 324 542
VRR 19 cities 497 547
Washington DC 464 798

Source: Analysis completed by authors.

Despite these two key similarities, transit ridership in these regions is significantly higher than in the Washington metro area. The six highlighted VVs had between 168 and 442 transit trips per resident in 2015—compared to just 48 transit trips per resident in the Washington metro area in 2017. Most of these regions have also experienced dramatic increases in ridership over the past few decades, unlike this area. These facts raise an important question: could the VV model, or something like it, help the Washington metro area reverse years of transit ridership declines?

Figure 2: Percent increase in total and per-capita public transportation ridership (linked trips) 1990-2016 (1991-2017 for Washington)

Analysis completed by authors.

VVs developed in response to transportation challenges similar to Washington’s

While the challenges faced were similar to those we experience in our region, the response was altogether different. In the 1960s and 1970s, metropolitan areas in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were facing similar challenges to many US metro areas:

  • Car ownership skyrocketed leading to worsening congestion, pollution, and parking shortages,
  • The growth of low-density suburbs made it more expensive to provide transit service, and
  • Transit usage fell, posing serious financial problems for transit operators.

At the time, regional coordination of public transit was not typical in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Yet, the central cities in each of the countries viewed improved regional transit as key to reversing their decline, while transit operators sought financial assistance from local governments. Thus, both transit providers and city governments had strong incentives to work together.

This situation led to the development of the first VV in 1967. The main transit operator in Hamburg (owned by the city) took the initiative of leading coordinating activities in the region to explore ways to facilitate integration of the fragmented services and fares, eventually convincing all transit operators in the region to join in a VV. To address concerns by some of the regional transit providers that they would lose revenue by giving up control over fares, the City of Hamburg guaranteed regional rail and bus operators that it would provide funding to offset losses resulting from integrated operations.

The extraordinary success of Hamburg’s VV in coordinating many disparate transit services was an important factor in encouraging the spread of VVs to other metropolitan areas seeking solutions to declining transit ridership and increasing congestion.

Figure 3: Expansion of VVs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, 1967-2017

Image by the author from Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Note: The graph only includes VVs currently in operation, thus excluding VVs that no longer exist because of their amalgamation into larger VVs.

VVs are structured to deliver regionally-integrated transit service

A key feature of VV systems is that, while VVs vary in the specific details of their operations, they all share the goal of providing fully-integrated transit services, one fare structure, and uniform ticketing throughout their service area. Most VVs are governed by an executive body made up of representatives from jurisdictions and/or public transit operators, which has responsibility for planning routes and schedules, integrating fares and ticketing, distributing fare revenues and public funding among transit providers, setting and monitoring performance standards, and customer information and marketing.

Though many VVs began with transit providers playing a leading role, changes to German law in the 1990s gave state and local governments more authority with regard to transportation planning. Today, in most VVs in large metro areas, government jurisdictions have the leading role, but transit providers give important input relating to operations. Table 3 shows the approximate allocation of functions among government jurisdictions, the VV executive body, and transit providers.

Table 3: Typical allocation of tasks by VV leaders (“PT” refers to public transit)

- Deciding which PT services to tender and under what conditions

Level of VV Typical tasks
Government jurisdictions
  • Determining overall level of PT services and fares
  • Setting level of government funding and infrastructure investment
VV executive body
  • Planning and coordination of PT service levels, routes, and timetables
  • Issuing calls for tender and awarding PT service contracts
  • Integrating fare structure and ticketing
  • Distributing fare revenues and government subsidies among PT firms
  • Marketing and public relations
  • Setting and monitoring service quality standards
  • Long-term planning and coordination of PT infrastructure projects
PT operators
  • Running PT services
  • Collecting fare revenue
  • Maintaining vehicles, stations, and rights of way
  • Implementing infrastructure projects

Source: Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland

There is mutual feedback among transit operators, government jurisdictions, and the VV executive body. For example, government jurisdictions establish the overall level of transit service, but the VV translates that into specific service levels by mode, route, and schedule—with crucial input from the transit operators actually providing the service. Similarly, government jurisdictions jointly determine overall subsidy and fare levels, but the VV translates those into a specific fare structure, and transit operators collect those fares. Government jurisdictions determine which services to contract out, but the VV issues the tenders and awards contracts, and transit operators (both within and outside the VV) compete to provide such services.

VVs have made transit more competitive

Although there is variation among VVs in the details of their organizational structure and decision-making process, all VVs offer their customers fully integrated regional public transportation. VVs offer one unified route network (all modes, all lines), fully coordinated schedules, and one fare structure and ticketing system. A transit rider in these regions needs to consult only a single transit map to plan a trip. Just one transit pass is needed to complete that trip, regardless of how many different services are used.

This stands in sharp contrast to the situation that existed prior to VVs. In Hamburg, for example, a transit rider needed seven different tickets to cross the city before the VV was put in place. The enhanced quality of service VVs provide is crucial for transit to compete effectively with the private car, and it seems to be working; as discussed above, VVs in the six highlighted German, Swiss, and Austrian metro areas showed significant increases in total and per-capita ridership between 1990 and 2015.

More accessible

One reason for increasing transit ridership is more transit service. Indeed, all of the VVs studied, except Berlin, increased the amount of transit service provided between 1990 and 2015. New and expanded bus and rail routes have brought transit stops closer to more people, providing greater connectivity and more travel options. In most of the VVs, bus and rail services have become more frequent, often in regular, easy-to-remember intervals such as every 10, 15 or 20 minutes. In addition, all of the VVs have modernized buses and rail vehicles and have invested heavily in infrastructure improvements such as upgraded stations.

Figure 4: Kilometers of transit service per capita, 1990-2015

Image by the author from Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Faster

VVs design route schedules to minimize transfer times between different modes and operators. Schedule planning focuses on the entire trip, from origin to destination, with the goal of minimizing both total travel time and problematic transfers across different modes of transit. Waiting times for transfers are among the most frustrating aspects of the transit trip for customers, but synchronization of schedules and stop locations have reduced waiting times for riders, even when transferring between transit modes.

More convenient

VVs have fully integrated real-time information systems regionwide, both online and with digital displays at station stops and on transit vehicles. Online trip planners suggest the best options, considering all available modes and routes, regardless of transit operator. Integrated information makes it easier for passengers to use transit to go anywhere within the VV’s service area.

Not only are transit services better coordinated with each other, but there is also better coordination of transit with other types of transportation. Bike-sharing and car-sharing agencies are increasingly working together with VVs to offer special monthly or annual tickets that include membership in their programs.

More affordable

VVs have greatly improved the convenience of ticketing while providing large discounts for regular riders. Single pass programs allow riders to pay once, at the beginning of a month or year (similar to the way car owners pay), rather than paying by the trip. All VVs offer substantial discounts from the regular one-way ticket price for monthly and annual tickets and tickets for special groups. Figure 5 shows the deep discounts riders can receive compared to purchasing 10 regular one-way tickets (i.e., two trips per weekday).

Figure 5: Discount for monthly, annual, and special group passes, 2016

Image by the author from Verkehrsverbund: The Evolution and Spread of Fully-Integrated Regional Public Transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

VVs are part of an ecosystem that prioritizes transit

Residents of VV regions benefit from one-stop shopping when it comes to public transit, which undoubtedly accounts for at least some of the ridership increases these regions have experienced. Other factors, separate from the VVs, also play a role. While transit fares have increased in all of the case study VVs since 1990, gasoline prices have risen faster, making transit relatively cheaper than driving a car. Cities have limited parking and speeds in downtown areas, further disincentivizing driving.

The result is a transportation system in which transit is competitive with the private car. In 2016, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland had among the highest car ownership rates in Europe. But those high rates did not deter their residents from making almost half of their daily trips by walking, cycling, and public transit. By comparison, in the U.S., walking, cycling, and public transit together accounted for only 14% of all daily trips in 2017.

Increasing use of alternatives to driving is a stated goal of the Washington metro area’s transportation and planning agencies. The VV model has helped many cities in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland achieve that very goal. In our next post, we will consider how the experience of these international regions may be relevant to solving transportation challenges in the Washington area.

Ralph Buehler, PhD is Associate Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning at Virginia Tech in Arlington, Virginia.  HIs research has contrasted transport and land-use in Western Europe and North America. He is the author or coauthor of over 65 refereed articles, the book City Cycling (MIT Press), as and reports to governments, NGOs, and companies in the US and abroad. Between 2012 and 2018 he served as chair of the TRB committee on Bicycle Transportation.

Joe McAndrew is the Greater Washington Partnership’s director of transportation policy where he develops, directs and drives all activity relating to the Partnership’s efforts to achieve a regional 21st century transportation ecosystem. McAndrew is a political observer, outdoor recreationist, soccer fiend, bike commuter, and is a resident of Columbia Heights.

Sarah Kline is Principal at SK Solutions LLC, a Fairfax-based consulting firm specializing in public transportation and transit-oriented development. She has nearly two decades of experience working in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including at the US Senate and WMATA. Among other projects, she provides research and analysis to the Greater Washington Partnership on transit issues.