Does German desire for transport efficiency trump environmental concerns?

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
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...

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.

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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.

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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.


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  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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