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Learning from Number Two: Germany and Its Exports

Just weeks ago, Germany formally relinquished its title as the world’s top exporter to China. For 2009, China reported that its exports totaled $1.2 trillion as compared to Germany’s $1.1 trillion. The U.S. lost this title in 2003, when Germany surpassed our exports. What a difference a decade makes.

Even on the heels of their success, Germany has been cringing at the prospect of China surpassing them in total dollars generated by annual exports. In 2005, on the floor of the German Parliament, the state secretary for the Ministry of Transportation argued that Germany’s role in trade will slip without strategic, intermodal interventions to improve the movement of trade. His words highlighted the growing concern over the country’s competitiveness and conveyed that it was the federal government’s role to focus more intensively on freight. “There was a growing sense that freight was increasingly crucial to the country,” shared Johannes Wieczorek, head of freight transport and logistics for the Federal Ministry for Transport. Backed by Chancellor Merkel, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to support the development of a national strategy to strengthen the country’s logistics and freight. Less than two years later, Germany devised a national strategy that integrated all transportation modes, such as rail, roads, and waterways to accelerate the movement of freight across all parts of the country.

None of this was a minor accomplishment. In short order, the national government developed a strategy involving important stakeholders such as state and local leaders, ports, businesses, and environmental groups. 

The freight strategy, while vague on many details, outlines over 30 actions that signal where the federal government is headed: to shift more freight onto rail and waterways; to strengthen logistical gateways (such as ports) with more federal infrastructure money; and to increase funding for combined transport.

Germany’s National Port Concept is just one of these actions. It is essentially a list of priority ports that are to receive federal infrastructure investment funds given their national importance as trade gateways. Modeled after a similar effort for airports, both ports and airports will now use quantitative data to justify transportation funding. This empirically-driven process replaces a highly political one where earmarks are essentially designated by those in power. While it will clearly define who are the winners and losers, the Port Concept has sharpened federal decisionmaking on how and where to use transportation dollars wisely. Today, priority ports and airports will receive funding to create the best and most direct connections to high-speed railways and highways.

We could learn a great deal from Germany’s determination and focus. Although China surpassed Germany, a trend that was impossible to stave off in the long run, Germany is now well positioned to make sure they remain at the top of the list of the world’s top exporters. While we are just waking up to the reality that we need to increase our exports, as President Obama emphasized in his State of the Union Address, we have serious work in first improving our freight infrastructure to move our goods. Just a few days ago, U.S. DOT announced TIGER grants--funds largely focused on freight and ports. While a promising start, these grants are just a drop in the bucket in light of the level of investment needed. We would be wise to follow Germany and devise a national strategy to guide how and where to maximize every dollar for freight.

  • A former city planner, Julie Wagner is an expert on long- and short-range land use planning, public involvement, and land use conflict resolution. Her research areas include development of large scale urban regeneration projects, land use mediation, and the design and implementation of public involvement programs for controversial urban projects.