Does German desire for transport efficiency trump environmental concerns?

A new survey into mobility in several major economies shows that Germans want to change their behaviour towards more environmentally friendly travel. But there’s a hitch...

Does German desire for transport efficiency trump environmental concerns?
A new tram hits the lines in the town of Erfurt. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

Seven in ten Germans want to change their mode of travel in order to reduce their C02 footprint, the newly released Digital Auto Report 2021 shows.

That puts Germans ahead of Americans – just one in two US citizens see the carbon emissions of their own car as a major concern, the report conducted by consultancy firm PwC finds.

A quarter of Germans surveyed said they would be willing to completely forego short haul flights; 45 percent said they would rather cycle short distances than drive, and just 18 percent said they would consider switching to an electric car.

But that doesn’t mean that Germans are necessarily more likely than citizens of the US to change their behaviour.

Partly driven by the pandemic, some 30 percent of Germans admitted that they try to avoid using public transport, while 44 percent said they wanted to purchase a new car in the next year or two. That shows roughly the same attachment to personal mobility as in the US.

And that isn’t likely to change: just seven percent of Germans say they plan to up their use of public transport once life returns to normal.

Cars beat buses

The reason for this reluctance to get on a bus or train could lie in the basic inefficiency of public transport compared to personal mobility.

A recent study by the Berlin Mobility Institute found that a journey using public transport takes roughly twice as long as one by car in eleven major German cities including Cologne, Munich and Berlin.

The situation in Hamburg was particularly drastic. There, a journey by bus and train takes on average 2.24 times as long as a journey by car.

Someone in Hamburg who wishes to travel from the centre of town to the south or southwest of the town using the public transport network would need to be prepared to spend two and a half times as long as if they were to travel by car.


The report found that several factors were causing this tardiness. In particular, insufficient bus links between suburbs and long waiting times were slowing down door-to-door journey times.

Rural Germans face an even greater challenge if they want to sell their car and switch to public transport.

A survey by the pro-rail lobby group Allianz pro Schiene published in August found that 18 percent of the population of Bavaria don’t have a bus stop or train station in walking distance. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, 22 percent don’t have a nearby connection to a public transport system.

Not all German states are so bad at linked the countryside to the city though. In Hesse 96 percent of the population have a bus or train station in walking distance.

Upping investment

According to Zeit journalist Sören Götz, the car’s advantage over trams and trains is that public transport “was neglected for decades.”

“Politicians strived for the ideal of the car-friendly city and built roads instead of tracks,” Götz wrote in a recent analysis of the issue. “Buses and trains were only intended as a stopgap solution for those who could not afford a car.”

The Berlin Mobility Institute suggests some solutions to the problem. 

A smart traffic light system in the inner cities could make sure that buses are always given a green light, an idea known as “the green wave”. A similar system has been in place in the Swiss city of Geneva since 2006 allowing buses and trams to take priority over private vehicles.

Another solution would be to put more buses and trains in service in order to reduce waiting times.

But all this would cost large amounts of money.

An analysis by the National Public Transport Association has found that Germany needs to up its public transport services by 25 percent by the year 2030 in order to tempt more commuters onto the tracks and bus lines.

But their cost estimate is that the state would have to more than double its current spending of €25 billion in subsidies to public mobility.

Member comments

  1. I am surprised that they claim it can take twice as long to take public transportation than a car in Berlin. Between getting to your parking spot, the traffic jams in and around Mitte, the closed roads, and then finding a parking spot at your arrival (let alone finding a parking spot when you return), I can’t think how taking the S and/or U-Bahn is slower. Was this study measuring duration for people who live outside of Berlin?
    The biggest problem is what seems to be a sickness for driving, even if it is just for a few blocks. Based on conversations I have had, it seems that many do not understand what it actually costs to own and drive a car. The social and environmental cost of driving – well, that one is off the table for the majority of people , but surprisingly no one seems to know their actual out-of pocket costs, like: petrol/km, parking, car maintenance, insurance, car devaluation, and what it does to their car (and petrol consumption) when they drive every day for only a Km or two.
    I wish the government (or local governments) would take more initiative to get the message out so more people understand these things so that maybe some would change their bad habits (I am thinking of my unemployed/retired neighbors, who drive 500 meters – on a Play Street – to buy a couple bakery rolls , come home, then shoot off again in high-stress to buy a liter of milk, and that is their daily norm not an exception. Completely insane, especially when they complain that they don’t have enough money for something).

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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.