We reviewed four adverts for German public transport systems

A screenshot from Waiting for Godot’s Tram, a film promoting Dresden’s tram system. Seriously. Image: DVB.

In February this year, the German government announced it would begin trials in five cities offering citizens free public transport. Faced with the threat of lawsuits for having air toxicity levels higher than EU limits, it’s an attempt to entice more people onto public transport in a country where the car is often still seen as king.

Though the image of the chino-sporting Spießer in Stuttgart constantly buffing and rebuffing his Wagen probably pushes it too far, there’s some truth behind the stereotype. While overall use of public transport has risen, cars still dominate the daily commute. Since 2000, the proportion of commuters using public transport has barely changed, rising just 1 per cent to 14 per cent in 16 years. Over two thirds still get to work by car.

For Germany’s regional public transport operators this isn’t for want of effort. In cities across the country, communications teams have been inventive in their attempts to swing the needle in the other direction. After happening upon some of their adverts towards the bottom of a late night YouTube clickhole, I’ve become an aficionado. Some of them are inspired, many mundane, and others profoundly weird. So here’s a selection, for your pleasure.

Dresden

This is an odd one. Waiting for Godot’s Tram shows two washed-out middle-aged men doing just that in the middle of Dresden, all the while holding a conversation modelled on Beckett’s script, but with some ill-fitting public transport references hammered in.

“Have you let slip the plan?” asks one, when an old woman joins them at the tram stop. “It’s on to the internet,” replies the other. He’s referring to the new timetable.

Clearly the comms team’s frustrated arts graduate decided Dresden needed to know what he wrote his dissertation on. A real hidden gem. Savour it.

Munich

Meat and potatoes stuff from the world capital of meat and potatoes: it’s a ten-minute long day-in-the-life video on what it’s like to drive the bus.

Sometimes the presenters wear fancy dress, though it’s not always clear why. Otherwise the running time is crammed full of enough mindless fridge-magnet banter to get the writers a One Show job. One for the purists.

North Rhine Westphalia

Peter Thorwarth is Germany’s answer to Guy Ritchie. He’s well-known for a trilogy of cult films released in the late nineties and early noughties about the capers of oddball provincial losers, all set in a dead-end town near Dortmund.

In 2015 he was commissioned by North-Rhine Westphalia’s public transport operator to film a promotional series. The result was Commuters and Other Heroes – eighteen short videos depicting the mishaps of a set of easily-recognisable stereotypes as they travel around the region. A David Brent-alike is forced to take the train by a driving ban; an affable and streetwise Turkish-German fights off a hen-do; and a feminist/vegetarian student nags on at everyone.

Interspersing the dialogue is some fairly unsubtle promotion for various ticket options.

Berlin

The daddy. Earlier this year, Berlin’s operator, the BVG, released a pair of trainers that also counted as an annual season ticket for its network. Only 500 pairs were released, and they sold out almost immediately – Berliners queued for hours in sleet to get their hands on them.

It was a knowing and self-consciously cool marketing ploy from Germany’s most self-regarding city, but without a doubt bang on the money. It’s just the latest in a long line of hits from BVG’s renowned comms team.

Though one of their homemade songs went viral, the standout stunt was convincing U2 to perform on the city’s U2 U-Bahn line. At one point, Bono turns to a train as it pulls into the platform to sing directly at a bemused woman and a man, who seems to swear at him. It’s about as good a metaphor for the time they automatically downloaded their new album onto unwitting users’ iTunes accounts as you’re likely to get.


 

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.