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.


 

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.