Calling urban planners: Explain Frankfurt to me?
January 29, 2017 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Frankfurt quite frequently lately, and I’m befuddled by its density or lack thereof.

The city is surrounded by a forest before the airport on the south side and farm fields within three miles of the city center on the north side. Even in the middle of the day, I see relatively heavy traffic on the A66 and E451 but seldom traffic jams.

The city is surrounded by low density villages and there’s the huge Niddapark in the middle. There are about a half a dozen towers, but mostly the building are five stories or less.

There are a lot of walkers and cyclists. I do not see any American style suburbs. The only area that makes sense to me from the perspective of dense American cities like New York is the east side by the rail yards, which look like the outlying parts of NYC. 

Where are all the people coming and going in Frankfurt? Where do they live in enough density to support these levels of traffic and such a dense network of transport options? Are people commuting in from cities as far away as Mainz, Heidelberg and Giessen?
posted by Roy Batty to Travel & Transportation around Frankfurt, Germany (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely yes they are commuting from Mainz, Heidelberg, Giessen etc. I lived in Frankfurt for four years. Those places are a short train ride away. I knew people who lived in Munich and commuted to Frankfurt!

What is Frankfurt today is a conglomoration of small villages that have gradually been networked in as the trains and Autobahns expanded. Very few people actually live in the centre city.

I used to commute about 45 minutes from outside Muehlheim (bicycle, train, bus) and often if I had multiple errands to do in town I would bring my bicycle on the train and then use it in the city.
posted by lollusc at 7:56 PM on January 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

And is your question specifically that it seems like there isn't enough traffic into the city to account for the number of pedestrians and cyclists, yet you can't see evidence that they are living in the city itself?

If that's the question, then the answer is trains. They are fast, reliable, comparatively cheap (especially when you consider that petrol, car registration and insurance, etc, is expensive by American standards), and very very frequent. The pedestrians you see almost certainly came in by train. The cyclists may have done (as I used to) and brought their bicycles with them. Or they might keep a bicycle in the city, e.g. at their university or workplace. Or they may have cycled in from outside the centre city. Germans are comfortable with long cycle commutes, even in businesswear. My friend's dad cycles an hour to work every morning in his suit.

The Germans I know would only use their car to drive into town if they are travelling in a group of three or four people, and have a dedicated parking spot they can use, and/or the weather is really terrible.
posted by lollusc at 8:07 PM on January 29, 2017

Yep, what you're seeing above was my experience, too. I'd say maybe 1/3 of my Frankfurt colleagues lived in the city proper, and the rest lived in the towns and villages nearby and would take the train in. The basement was full of bicycles.

The trains are amazing! Colleagues from Koln (200 km away) would come in for project work and the commute each way was about an hour and a half. Which was amazing -- when I'd lived before in NYC, my commute from Queens to Chelsea (about 7 miles?) took a full hour.
posted by mochapickle at 9:52 PM on January 29, 2017

(One more comment, and then I'll shut up.) I just used Walkscore to generate maps of New York and of Frankfurt, with highlights for all the places you can live within a 1 hour public transport commute of the centre. In New York, that had a maximum distance of about 25km from the centre of Manhattan in each direction along the longest axis, i.e. an axis of 50km, and there was really only one long thin area like that. A circle enclosing the area within which you could live just about anywhere and get to Manhattan in less than an hour would really only have a 30-something km diameter.

In Frankfurt, the longest axis was 120km end-to-end. And there the map is kind of a star shape, i.e. there are lots of axes along which you can get to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof within an hour by public transport. A circle that encloses only areas that are within a one-hour commute is about 60-70km in diameter, so still about double New York's.
posted by lollusc at 10:08 PM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have spent a lot of time in the Taunus region and I'll back lollusc here.

The whole area is filled with commuter suburbs to Frankfurt. Giessen, Hanau, Butzbach, Friedberg, Wetzlar, even Limburg an der Lahn.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:40 AM on January 30, 2017

Thanks for sharing! Fascinating. What is the attraction of living on Frankfurt’s periphery? Having experienced the commuter life, I know it can often be a hassle catching the train on time, no matter how fast or cheap your ride is.

Is it expense? I’ve heard that finding a flat there can be expensive.

Or is it lifestyle? I imagine life in a place like Giessen is very different from life in a big city life Frankfurt. Is gentrification less of a force there than in a lot of American cities — or than in Berlin?
posted by Roy Batty at 1:43 PM on January 30, 2017

... or is it traditional/family/hometown ties? From what I know about Europe, people are far less prone to uproot themselves for work than Americans.
posted by Roy Batty at 1:45 PM on January 30, 2017

All of the things you mention. Also the forests around there are beautiful and I loved cycling through them every morning on my way to the train. And Taunus is even more stunning.

Plus just lack of options closer in. It's not just expensive, compared to the surrounding region, but as you noticed, there's not a ton of apartments and it can be challenging to find something very central. If you are going to have a20 minute commute via ubahn and/or bus even if you live in the city, why wouldn't you as add another 10-15 minutes on and live somewhere really lovely?
posted by lollusc at 2:12 PM on January 30, 2017

Also, Frankfurt seemed to shut down early. When I visited for work, I'd leave work at 7 and the streets were mostly deserted. So it never felt like a big city, nor did it have the big city attractions that you'd expect in a city center.
posted by mochapickle at 2:53 PM on January 30, 2017

What is the attraction of living on Frankfurt’s periphery?

Many of the towns, especially in the valley, are surround by beautiful fields and forests and hills. It's quiet, clean, and cheaper than the city for what amounts to a trivial commuter train ride in (trains are much faster and efficient than the states).

Germans value their nature and having some space. Many city folk will build small garden houses on plots away from the chaos, just to have some peace and quiet on weekends.

Giessen is pretty much what a university town would be like in the states. Other towns, like Butzbach, you can literally walk out your back door and up into the forest.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:23 PM on January 31, 2017

just another question, if anyone's still watching -- does this perspective on living outside the city affect gentrification within the city?

My impression was that Frankfurt isn't experiencing the same kind of hipster invasion that Berlin is. Is this because the city is full of bankers who would want to live in their small towns, but the center is already really expensive? (and if it is full of bankers who want to live in their small towns, what's making the center already expensive... is it families who have been there for generations?)

On the other hand, I've seen heavy construction in the area. I was on the S5 lately through Oberusel and noticed a ton of new buildings (a hotel and office buildings) where 5 years ago there used to be empty industrial-looking lots.
posted by Roy Batty at 3:35 AM on February 6, 2017

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