This map shows how people used Berlin's U-Bahn in the 1920s

Bulowstrasse station in 1903 - one of the first stations to be built on Berlin's U-Bahn network. Image: Wikimedia Commons

From the saucily snarling chords of Cabaret to the dusky, smoke-filled backrooms of Christopher Isherwood’s novels, 1920s Berlin conjures up certain images in the collective consciousness. And no city could cultivate an image as distinctive as Berlin’s during this period without a solid public transport network.

Yep, you guessed it. We’re here to talk about trains.

First things first, a reasonably brief history of the Berlin U-Bahn.

This map shows it pretty well, but the gist of it is that a very small-scale, east-west network was built by about 1913, running primarily through Schöneberg, Charlottenburg, and Wilmersdorf, all pretty affluent areas as it was thought this would prove more profitable. This wasn’t an entirely underground network, though, and the earliest stretches of track were elevated.

Click to expand. The history of the U-Bahn. Image: Sansculotte.

The second phase of construction, through the 1910s and 1920s, saw the first north-south lines, as the city wanted to bring the benefits of the railway lines to the city’s poorer residents.

Lisa Charlotte Rost, a blogger and data nut (same) living in Berlin, spotted this historical map from 1927 at Uhlandstrasse U-Bahn station in Germany’s capital, and it’s pretty cool.

The caption, written in the beautiful phlegm that is the German language, translates as, roughly: “Strength/density of traffic on the over and underground railway lines in 1927 (numbers given in millions of passengers)”

Click to enlarge. Image: BVG via Lisa Charlotte Rost

The first thing to note is that the lines pictured on the map are rather different to today’s U-Bahn offering.

The stretch from Thielplatz to Nordring is today split between two lines: the U3, from Thielplatz to Nollendorfplatz, and the U2, from there to Nordring, which is today called Schönhauser Allee.

The branch of the same line from Wittenbergplatz to both Stadion and Wilhelmplatz is now split between the U2, which runs from Wittenbergplatz to Olympiastadion (as it is now known) and on further to Ruhleben, and one stop of the U7 from Bismarckstrasse to Richard-Wagner-Platz, which appears on the 1927 map as Wilhelmplatz.

The light green line on the map, from Uhlandstrasse and Hauptstrasse to Warschauer Strasse, is today primarily the U1, which runs from Uhlandstrasse to Warschauer Straße. The spur from Nollendorfplatz south to Hauptstrasse is today the short U4 line, on which many of the station names have changed. Viktoria-Louise Platz and Bayerischer Platz have stayed the same, but Stadtpark has become Rathaus Schöneberg and the terminus, Hauptstrasse, has become Innsbrucker Platz.

The final principal route that this old cartographic wonder shows runs from Seestrasse in the north to Bergstrasse in the south, with a short branch running off to Flughafen (as in, airport) too. Seestrasse is now about one-third of the way along the U6 line, which runs south to Mehringdamm, which on the 1927 map is called Belle-Alliance Strasse. From there, the current U6 continues along the path of the short spur line to Flughafen, where Kreuzberg station is today’s Platz der Luftbrücke and Flughafen – built to serve the old Berlin Tempelhof airport, now used as a recreational park which is today called Paradestrasse.

The main run of the dark green line on the 1927 map, however, meanders on via Hermannplatz and Rathaus Neukölln to its terminus at Bergstrasse, which is today called Karl-Marx-Strasse.

And finally there’s the little, little-used stretch from Kottbusser Tor south to Boddinstrasse, which is just a small chunk of today’s U8.

Berlin in 1932, five years after the passengers recorded on this map. Image: German Federal Archives.

So yes. Lots of differences.

As for the real content of the map, there are lots of very obvious things to say here.

All three main arteries are much busier in their central sections than at their edges fairly predictably.

Transfer stations such as Wittenbergplatz, Nollendorfplatz and Friedrichstadt all see slight reductions in the business of one line as passengers flip over to the other again, standard.


Branch lines of the same route combine to make the central sections busier in terms of passenger numbers: Belle-Alliance Strasse sees 26.1m and 5.6m journeys combine, with a few others who get on at Belle-Alliance Strasse, to make 33.8m journeys from there to Hallesches Tor. This is also obvious.

But you can also pick out two interesting tidbits that reveal the age of this map in an enjoyable way.

The line to Flughafen looks pretty unused, and there are two obvious reasons for this. One is that air travel was nothing like it is today. Deutsche Luft Hansa (as in Lufthansa, but there’s no legal connection) has only started in 1926, and the U-Bahn connection to Tempelhof airport was the first direct connection between a metro system and an airport in the world. Air travel for passenger use was still in its very early days, and was restricted to those who could afford it.

The other important fact here is that the station only opened on 10 September 1927. By that measure, having already seen 2.2m journeys isn’t actually bad work.

The other interesting point on the map is the Stadion station, which only had 600,000 journeys in 1927, according to the map.

There’s no excuse of youth, here: the Stadion U-Bahn station opened on 8 June, 1913, at the same time as the Deutsches Stadion on the site.

An IK-type train testing at Olympiastadion station. Image: Bahnsteigkante.

The whole site was finished in ample time for Berlin’s hosting of the 1916 Summer Olympic Games, but they were cancelled for the obvious and glaring reason of the First World War, and regular train service to the Stadion station did not start until 1922. The surrounding area at that time was hardly (nor is it today) a particularly packed residential area, so it’s understandable that use of the station was a little dwindling.

It was only when Berlin was awarded the 1936 Olympics that the area came back to life. German architect Werner March was originally contracted to restore the 1913 Deutsches Stadion, but when Adolf Hitler came into power and decided to use the games as propaganda, he commissioned March instead to built a totally new stadium.

In 1927, however, the 1936 games hadn’t even been awarded to any city (next up on the horizon were the 1928 games, in Amsterdam).

So there you have it. History, maps and trains, all at the same time. Dont say we never do anything for you.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.