An Urbanist Overview of Munich


S8 Line on Munich's S-bahn

At the beginning of my first-ever international trip, I had the pleasure to spend two days alone in Munich, so that I could analyze (at least to the depth that two days permit) the urban form, sustainability, and overall health of the German state Bavaria’s capital. Because this overview was based upon anecdote (and some research) alone, I will write it informally, and without any overall argument (though I will take several positions). I will also break up the different aspects of my overview into sections, such that every urban design I considered can be properly discussed. Enjoy!



MASS TRANSPORTATION

Because German rail workers are currently striking, service disruptions or issues presented in this section may not be an accurate representation of Munich’s full rail system under normal circumstances. I do hope that this section will provide at least a taste of Munich’s mass transit system, even if somewhat affected by the strikes.


Overview of Transit Options in Munich

There are several transit options available to riders in Munich and the surrounding area. For service within the city, two rail systems provide metro and short distance service. The U-Bahn–Munich’s metro system–runs eight lines throughout the city and into some surrounding suburbs. There are also trams that run largely in dedicated guideways (though some run in mixed traffic) throughout the city. There is also a comprehensive bus system (though I did not have a chance to ride the bus while in Munich). For regional transit, the S-bahn runs eight lines emanating from the city to many suburbs and surrounding cities, as well as the airport. Aside from the bus system, I will consider all of these major transit options.


S-Bahn (Regional Rail)

The Munich S-bahn (short for “Stadtschnellbahn”, or “urban rapid rail” in English) is a hybrid urban and regional rail system that runs through and to various locations in the Munich urban area. The S-bahn has eight fully electrified lines that run largely in dedicated passenger routes (though some do run on mixed traffic with freight lines): The S1-S8 (excluding S5, which does not exist) and the S20. Excluding the S20, all of these routes connect on an 11.4-kilometer line at the center known as the Stammstrecke–or “trunk route” in English–producing peak frequencies of less than two minutes on that line. Off-peak frequency is around twenty minutes, but some lines have ten-minute frequencies during peak hours. Trains run from 4:15 AM to 1 AM, with the S8 running 24 hours in the airport direction. 

The only train I rode was the S8, the airport line (I wanted to ride the S6, but didn’t have the time). The exterior was red and modern, and the interior was designed much like a metro (some chairs and a lot of standing room). Because S8 is an airport line, there also were some designated spots for luggage, but other than that I saw no significant differences from other lines. The maximum speed I recorded was 140 kilometers per hour (around 90 miles per hour), which is roughly the standard maximum speed for regional trains. The S8 was delayed by approximately ten minutes the first time I rode it (presumably due to freight traffic), but on-time on the way back. Trains ran every twenty minutes off-peak to and from the airport, and reached the airport in around fifty minutes.

The S8 was the first international train I’ve ever ridden, and I was thoroughly impressed. Even in the New York metropolitan area–which has over seven times as many people as the Munich urban area–trains on the MetroNorth and Long Island Rail Road regional rail lines run every thirty minutes on-peak, and yet New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is, by far, the most convenient and used system in North America. In the Boston metropolitan area, the regional trains are even less convenient, with headways of over one hour in most stations beyond the north and south trunk lines–not to mention that lines emanating from North Station and South Station do not even connect through a train system at all (not even a subway line). Munich’s S-bahn also had a lot more ridership than any American regional rail system, by far; the trains were often packed (yet still comfortable), even off-peak, giving its S-bahn a daily ridership of over 800,000 (Herr); the ride was also quite smooth. On the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Purple Line (our regional rail system), off-peak ridership without any extenuating circumstances (big events) is stunningly low, and one can often find oneself alone in a train car. The ride there is smooth, but–due largely to the MBTA’s obsession with diesel-powered trains–are not quite as smooth as Munich’s S-bahn trains (they also aren’t environmentally sustainable).

While the higher quality of the S-bahn relative to American regional trains was not immediately evident, I later learned that the S-bahn is managed by Germany’s national rail company, Deutsche Bahn (DB). Nationalized rail systems generally have more resources than regional or municipal systems, and are less likely to succumb to local pressures. While that can certainly explain the S-bahn’s quality, attitudes towards rail are far more positive than they are in the United States, also contributing to its quality.


U-Bahn (Metro)

The Munich U-bahn network consists of eight lines, the U1 through U8, over a total of 100 stations and 103.1 kilometers of track. The U-bahn lines sprawl out much like most metro systems in the United States do (that is, with a central trunk line or station, from which most or all lines emanate), though there is some outer connection through the trams. While not connected by a bonafide inner trunk line, several lines connect together at different points on the various lines, near downtown, forming three separate trunk lines that connect at two different stations. The system runs from 4 AM to 1 AM on weekdays, and 4 AM to 2 AM on weekends, with headways between five minutes during rush hour and twenty minutes during early and late hours. The U-bahn is managed by the M√ľnchner Verkehrsgesellschaft (MVG), a municipal transportation agency, and carries around 400 million passengers a year.

I was fortunate enough to ride a majority of the U-bahn metro lines while in Munich. As with the S-bahn, I found the system to be quite convenient. Because of the trunk lines that ran through much of Munich’s densely-populated areas, frequencies were far better than the posted five to twenty minutes, achieving headways as strong as two minutes in central stations. The trains were clean, efficient, and smooth, with almost no noise or lateral movement; indeed, I found them to be almost as comfortable and quiet as the S-bahn, which itself was impressive among regional rail systems. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the U-bahn (and the S-bahn, for that matter) was the lack of fare gates; I saw this in Vienna too, but it appears that European cities have more trust in their residents than American cities (I have yet to see an American metro system without fare gates); this was quite a culture shock, I must admit, but I figured it out eventually. The fare system itself was somewhat confusing, but manageable when using the ticket screens (I’d imagine that locals just buy long-term transit passes anyway). 

As with many American metros, the U-bahn faces some criticism for its inability to provide cross connections between locations outside the central city. I experienced this flaw of the system myself on several occasions, particularly when connecting to Olympiapark from the Maxvorstadt neighborhood; I took the U2 to Scheidplatz in order to reach a more southern point in Olympiapark, but it was still a twenty-minute walk to reach the park. Connections further out likely experience even more pronounced issues, and relatively standard headways do not help. Other than that and the lack of fare gates, I thought the U-bahn was a rather strong system, and its comfort and cleanliness was essentially unmatched among the American metro systems I’ve ridden.


Tramway

The Munich tramway is a tram system that runs through many main thoroughfares throughout Munich, with many lines running small routes through different parts of the city. The tramway primarily runs on a dedicated track with its own signals, but some run in mixed traffic for short periods. These light rail systems are, of course, powered by overhead catenaries, and operate at relatively slow speeds. In main thoroughfares near downtown, frequencies are as low as a minute or two, whereas individual tram routes may have frequencies around five to ten minutes. When the U-bahn or S-bahn are inconvenient or not able to connect between destinations outside the downtown area, the tramway provides connectivity between lines on the U-bahn, and makes short trips far more convenient.

I rode several lines during my time in Munich, including the 12, the 17, the 19 and another route (I must admit, I do not remember the number). The trains were convenient and ran smoothly, and there were plenty of opportunities to meet people (my first conversation in Germany was on one of my tram rides). They also allowed me to see much of the city from a warm(er) enclosure, and helped me access areas that were otherwise inaccessible by the U-bahn or the S-bahn. The interconnectivity of the lines, especially north of the city center, was decently strong, but there did not seem to be enough connection between the U-bahn, S-bahn and the tram lines further south. 

Otherwise, though, the tramway far outpaced any light rail system I’ve seen in the United States (yes, including the MBTA Green Line), and also provides much insight into how large cities with large areas of density could address transit connectivity: Boston, which is considerably dense all the way to the I-95 loop, would benefit from a light rail belt loop or two running through cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Revere, Malden, Lynn, Quincy, Brockton, Waltham, Newton, and other surrounding communities. For most American urbanized areas though, the dynamics are quite different: Dense, thriving city centers are often surrounded by far less dense, relatively residential suburbs and suburban developments. These developments do not support tramways in the way that Munich’s density does (it is primarily residential throughout the city, yet there is no particular high-density downtown or low-density suburbs), but increasing density and walkability could be supported by similar infrastructure; in the same way that the Interstate Highway Act opened the door to suburban sprawl, light rail or even metro rail belt loops in suburban areas around major cities could open the door to density, walkability, and urban sustainability.


Summary

I found Munich’s public transportation to be extraordinarily convenient, but still somewhat flawed (its flaws, of course, are nowhere near as damaging or soul-crushing as those in some American cities, though). The convenience of Munich’s system is due in large part to its urban form, though: Munich, like many other European cities, is a sprawling metropolis of largely six-story mixed-use apartment buildings, which create essentially even density throughout most of the city. While this sprawl might be similar to suburban sprawl we see in the United States, the density that results from it is far higher (20,000 per square mile is a fair estimate). With densities supporting mass transit in larger areas, and with extremely old city blocks and buildings that do not support the automobile, rail transportation in Munich is primed to be not only necessary, but well-supported. This explains why, if Munich were in the United States, it would have the second most-used transit system while still being around the twentieth largest urban area (by population).

American cities, on the other hand, are not built this way. While some (particularly Boston) were built well before the automobile, and with similar development patterns as European cities, most were effectively gutted by suburban sprawl and automobile-dependency in the second half of the twentieth century. With large, dense urban cores and even larger, but criminally sparse suburban rings, only commuter-oriented rail systems really have enough demand in many American cities now. These development patterns, beyond the awful effects that the built environment has on the natural environment on its own, severely hampers sustainability and global warming goals (rail transit is quite a lot better for the environment than car transit) for the United States and abroad. Munich is simply better prepared for addressing climate change than many cities in America are, even with its rather obsessive car culture (I did get to spend time on the autobahn, yes).



URBAN DESIGN PATTERNS

Like many other European cities, Munich shows its age with extensive imperial planning, city blocks with uniform-size buildings, narrow streets, wide belts, light rail on main arteries, and pedestrian-only areas. While Munich, like every other European city (and, well, any city, for that matter), was quite affected by the automobile frenzies of the late twentieth century (and indeed, more so than many other European cities), Munich maintains a synergy between automobiles and people-oriented development. City blocks are largely quite wide, but on each side there are six-story, mixed-use apartment buildings and wide, protected sidewalks. The wide sidewalks, safe pedestrian crossings and many dedicated, separated walkways make the city not only pleasant to walk in, but simultaneously lively and peaceful. The pedestrian-only streets around Marienplatz, Karlsplatz and Viktualienmarkt are well-used yet not too crowded. And even the suburban developments are packed tightly yet peacefully, and streets are extremely narrow for safety. Ultimately, these design patterns contrast with American developments in many ways, but are quite similar (with some context) in others. 


Street Layouts

Munich has a limited grid system for its streets, with some randomness in Old Town and some of the surrounding areas; this is quite a contrast from similarly old cities like Paris or Boston, which generally grew without regard for non-foot traffic. Munich’s rather organized grid pattern (though nowhere near as organized as cities like Philadelphia or Chicago) is due largely to its practical rebirth following World War II–in which over 70% of Munich was destroyed (“1944”). As such, rebuilding efforts probably contributed to its rather organized street layouts.

Of all the cities I visited while in Europe, I found that the streets of Munich were the quietest; perhaps this was due to the time I was walking, the lack of major arterial roads, or the design of the streets themselves, but my walks were quite pleasant. Munich is not the least car-dependent city that I visited, by any measure, with 550 cars per 1,000 residents (“Munich”). For reference, Vienna has roughly 375 cars per 1,000 residents (“Vienna in Figures”). But its overall street designs more than made up for this disparity: On every street (even minor streets), there were either dedicated paths or wide, well-separated sidewalks and, on many occasions, grade-separated sidewalks; there was also very little traffic on most of the streets I walked on. Extensive street parking–while not, in my opinion, the best use of urban space–also helped to drown out sound, thereby making my overall experience on Munich’s streets peaceful, and lacking significant noise. 

There were also many traffic calming measures, between frequent traffic lights, tight lanes, and some red light and speed limit cameras. Even without these measures, drivers largely followed speed limits (possibly because they can speed all they want on the several autobahn highways that converge on Munich). Yet pedestrians rarely, if ever, jaywalked on the streets–they simply did not seem in as much of a hurry as citizens of a comparable city in America or Western Europe. 

Munich, compared to other European cities, has a relatively organized street layout and yields a rather pleasant experience for pedestrians and cyclists. The vibe Munich’s streets gave me was quite similar to certain large American cities like Boston and Chicago (though Munich’s streets are much more well-organized than Boston’s).


Housing Types

While I did not have the chance to explore Munich’s housing stock to any significant extent, it seemed to me that Munich’s housing patterns followed that of most European cities: In the central city and surrounding areas, there were five to six-story apartment blocks, with a first floor dedicated to commercial uses, and the floors above to residences. From above, the city looks almost uniform, with most buildings attaining similar, if not the same heights, while churches and some office buildings grew substantially higher. Apartments seemed to be the predominant housing type in Munich, and completely dominated the housing stock for much of the city.

In the suburbs, there was a mix of multifamily and single family housing: More modern apartment blocks (some taller than those in the central city) complemented dense, single-family housing along tight, winding streets. Suburban Munich, to me, resembles American inner suburbs like Cambridge, Massachusetts, with high housing densities but more single-family housing than in the central city. Here the streets seemed even more quiet, but car ownership was far more common.


Pedestrian Areas

Munich, while not as strong as some other large European cities (Vienna’s pedestrian-dedicated spaces were spectacular and numerous), had many lively, pedestrian-dedicated spaces. The corridor between Karlsplatz and Marienplatz is the main pedestrian space in the central city, containing dozens of shops, the fifteenth-century church Frauenkirche, and, nearby, the iconic Viktualienmarkt–a large outdoor public market founded in the nineteenth century. There are several smaller pedestrian corridors adjacent to the main space, but I found none that were longer than a block or two. 

The pedestrian space between Marienplatz and Karlsplatz was quite lively considering I was there on a Thursday morning (after rush hour), but even then, I did not find it to be particularly notable among pedestrian spaces in large European cities; this is perhaps due to the somewhat smaller tourist scene in Munich compared to cities like Vienna (whose pedestrian spaces, though sizable, were almost crowded), or the time of year that I was there (during Oktoberfest, I’d imagine that the central city gets quite busy).


Summary

Munich’s urbanism is excellent, though it is somewhat car dependent compared to other large European cities; this may result from the fact that BMW and Audi’s headquarters are both located in Bavaria, with BMW’s headquarters itself within Munich’s city limits, and perhaps the high wages there. Still, the street layouts were excellent, with wide sidewalks, frequent traffic calming measures, and overall a quiet, pleasant atmosphere throughout the city–whether near central arterials or side streets. Further, the pedestrian spaces were neither too crowded nor too touristy, and ultimately offered a pleasant space for locals and tourists alike; I was, however, surprised at how few large pedestrian spaces (that weren’t parks) Munich had, especially once I traveled to other European cities (Vienna and Innsbruck). Other than the fact that the corridor between Karlsplatz and Marienplatz has a lot of shopping and a nice market, I would not distinguish that among great pedestrian spaces in American cities like Boston–which has excellent pedestrian-only spaces that, too, are not overwhelmingly touristy.

On its housing stock, however, Munich distinguishes itself among global cities–but still, other than the architecture, it is no different from other large European cities. I found the consistent medium density development to be a pleasant contrast from disparity-rich American cities (where high density and low density dominate, with little medium density in between–that is, the “Missing Middle”), and the medium-to-low density suburban areas–which still managed to be rather walkable–were another good break from modern American suburban developments. 

Munich’s medium-to-high housing density, strong incorporation of mixed-use development, pedestrian-oriented street layouts, and walkability primes it once again to address sustainability issues within its city limits. If Munich were an American city, it would be one of the best prepared to fully address its sustainability problems.



CITY VIBES

Munich really does punch well above its weight (especially by American standards) when it comes to overall city vibes, whether in the liveliness of Munich’s streets during off hours, truly numerous and remarkably large public parks, and diverse architectural styles. The city’s youthful yet reserved vibe is an emblem of its rich economy, and of the city’s overall excellent walkability. The large public parks–particularly the English Garden–symbolize Munich’s emphasis on recreation, despite its long and troubled history. And the diverse architectural styles in the city point to the many artistic movements that have reached Munich’s city limits over the centuries, scaffolding eras next to, around, or even atop one another. Munich’s city vibes–influenced by its liveliness, recreation and overall aesthetics–are indeed quite similar to the cores of America’s most urban cities (Boston and Chicago come to mind here), but the overall cleanliness and more reserved nature of Munich’s residents ultimately differentiates it from such cities.


Liveliness

In a seminar I took at Harvard last semester, “Back to the Future: Cities of the Future Throughout History”, a friend of mine from Central Europe (whom I spent several days of this trip with) mentioned that even cities like Boston–which are rather lively by American standards–seem absolutely dead by comparison to large European cities. Having grown up in a city that my European friend would consider a dystopian hellscape more reminiscent of the seventh circle of hell than an affluent residential development, I was shocked by his opinion; upon visiting Munich and other European cities, however, I understood where he was coming from.

Now, I must acknowledge that Boston, to me, does not seem any less lively than any of the European cities I visited, other than Vienna (which is still three times the size of Boston, in terms of city population). But I did find Munich to be especially lively, given that I was there on two cold, winter weekdays. The pedestrian spaces were neither crowded nor barren, and had a reserved energy that was invigorating, rather than overwhelming (Manhattan, in my mind, fits the “overwhelming” energy). I walked almost sixty-thousand steps (and thirty miles) over the two days I was there, and not once did I feel unsafe or anxious.

The city also retained its lively character without the characteristic insanity of most American cities: There were fewer pigeons than in, for example, Cambridge; likely because of Germany’s extensive welfare programs, I encountered few beggars and even fewer homeless; and due also to Germany’s lack of drug war insanity, I saw no more than one person on hard drugs the entire time I was there.

Ultimately, Munich’s reserved nature likely comes from its religious culture, lack of tourists, relative wealth and high wages, and most importantly its excellent welfare system. If America had a similar welfare system as Germany, Boston would be an excellent comparison to Munich in terms of liveliness (that is, if Boston can solve its housing crisis).


Parks and Recreation

I am having much difficulty deciding whether the best part of Munich’s urbanism is its transit infrastructure or its parks. The English Garden was, without a doubt, the best urban park I have ever been to: It is at least the length of Central Park, and far, far quieter. It is not an ugly tourist trap, but a place of peace and solitude in the otherwise busy city. I was shocked by the near silence that encased the park even during busy hours, and by the numerous hiking and biking trails. There were places to hike, bike, walk, ski, sled, climb, and otherwise relax, and yet it was not manufactured: The natural beauty was never imported–the beauty was already there. In my mind, that is the mark of an excellent urban park: No unrealistic expectations or artificial nature, but rather the natural environment as it would have been if unperturbed by human settlement.

For manufactured recreation, however, there were still options. Olympiapark a few kilometers north of the central city had an entire ski and sledding hill, as well as sweeping views of Munich and even (on clear days) the Alps. There were many walking trails (and these were paved, too), all featuring the park that centered around Munich’s Olympics past (they hosted the summer games in 1972). I went to Olympiapark twice, and ultimately spent several hours there between the two days I was in Munich; while not as pleasant as the English Channel, I found Olympiapark to be lively and pleasant, with a rather diverse array of recreation options. There was also a nice observation tower, but poor viewing conditions prevented me from going up.

I am not well educated on the history of public parks in the United States, but the availability of nice, secluded recreation spaces within Munich’s city limits made me question American development patterns to a much greater extent. Older cities, with more layers of built history and many more political leaders, manage to score better on public recreation spaces than younger cities in America (even though, admittedly, some do quite well themselves). Also of interest are the circumstances in Munich that led to the English Garden, which is truly a spectacular public park.


Aesthetics and Cleanliness

As I mentioned in the Liveliness section, Munich is clean and reserved. I found very little garbage on the streets (but the streets were gross nonetheless), and the public transit stations and vehicles were immaculate (to the point that I’ve never seen trains or train stations so clean). Graffiti was somewhat rare, and even when I encountered graffiti, it seemed rather refined. 

The built aesthetic, like the rest of Munich as we’ve found, is quite refined as well. Unlike other European cities I visited (particularly Copenhagen and Vienna), most of Munich’s apartment blocks did not project power, architectural beauty, or artistic grandeur; rather, they consistently had a refined modernist style, with no plants or figures carved into the stone. The apartment blocks generally were pale colors, with almost no bright accents. This is likely due to the period that many of Munich’s apartment blocks were built in, rather than any zoning code or dogmatic architectural style. As noted in Street Layouts, over 70% of Munich was destroyed in World War II. And following World War II, the dominant architectural style for at least the next forty years would be modernist or even brutalist, with reserved outward designs and a lack of grandiosity. This style likely evolved as a deterrent to attention, as post-World War II tensions led to significant paranoia, especially in Europe. As such, it is no surprise that Munich has a more reserved aesthetic than cities like Vienna or Copenhagen: Munich had to rebuild virtually its entire city, and it thus did not have room to build with grandiosity or a distinctly European style.


Summary

I found the vibes in Munich to be the most reserved among the cities I visited in Europe, but I still considered it to be rather lively in comparison to many American cities. While city vibes alone cannot directly help a city address environmental sustainability at a broader level, good city vibes can attract people who otherwise might have lived in more car-dependent, and thus fossil fuel-dependent developments. While Munich is not as attractive as more “boujee” cities in Western Europe, Switzerland and Italy, its high incomes, proximity to the Alps, low crime (one of the ten safest cities in the world!), and extensive welfare system will certainly attract new residents–especially young residents–in the coming decades.



FINAL THOUGHTS

My view of Munich was complicated by the fact that it was the first European city I visited, but I still found it to be rather charming (yes, even after visiting Vienna), beautiful, and well-planned. There were certainly benefits of living in Munich relative to a walkable American city, but I could not definitively say whether, for example, a person who prioritizes urbanism would benefit more from living in Boston or Munich–that is, in the end, an individual decision. Still, Munich batted out of the park when it came to transit, beating every major transit system in the United States (based upon my personal travels), and prioritizing pedestrian traffic over car traffic. In addition, the plethora of parks, the proximity of the alps, and the walking culture contributed to the city’s rather lively–if reserved–environment.

I do, admittedly, have one America-centric opinion to give as I conclude. While some European cities have a defining structure or structures that leads one to instantly recognize the city–the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or Buckingham Palace in London, for example–many European cities seemed to me to blend together: The almost uniform housing stock in Munich, Vienna, Copenhagen and Innsbruck, while not bringing distinction to any particular neighborhood or class, caused many of the districts within the city–and indeed, some Central European cities themselves–to blend together. This phenomenon is likely somewhat cultural, as the focus in most European cities has been the churches (which are quite taller than six stories)–plus the capitalist fever of “building tall” has yet to significantly affect most European metros (though business districts in Paris, Frankfurt, London, and Vienna are starting to look quite a lot like those in some smaller American cities). In this regard, though, many American cities do quite a lot better than comparable European cities: With varying skylines and numerous iconic structures to call their own, many American cities are physically distinct from their comparably large counterparts, both from afar and close up. The main distinction between European cities is often the architectural style of the buildings themselves, whereas in American cities it is the size of the buildings, or the shape of the city’s skyline. 

Ultimately, I was happy to see Munich and review its urbanism for a couple of days this January. I am, admittedly, not an expert on the city, and my overview in this piece is based solely upon my experience in those couple of days. If you are curious about Munich’s–or, for that matter, European cities’–urbanism, consider traveling there yourself, or have some fun exploring the city on Google Maps. It is a rather expensive city, but pleasant nonetheless.

Thank you all for reading, as always. I expect to write more urbanist reviews of major cities in America and abroad as I continue my travels.



References

(n.d.). 1944. Retrieved January 13, 2024, from https://www.lmu.de/en/about-lmu/lmu-at-a-glance/history/1944/

Herr, R. (n.d.). Public Transport of the Future: The Second S-Bahn Main Line in Munich. tunnel. Retrieved January 12, 2024, from https://www.tunnel-online.info/en/artikel/public-transport-of-the-future-the-second-s-bahn-main-line-in-munich-3942495.html

Munich | CIVITAS. (n.d.). CIVITAS Initiative. Retrieved January 13, 2024, from https://civitas.eu/cities/munich

Vienna in Figures - Urban Area, Population, Education, Economy, Transport, Public Administration. (n.d.). Stadt Wien. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.wien.gv.at/english/administration/statistics/

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