Here’s an oldie but a goody: a 2009 Brookings report on sustainable transportation in Germany. The upshot is that Germans enjoy a safer, more energy efficient, and more affordable transportation system than Americans do. (Germany almost certainly beats Canada too, though the article focuses on the US.)
Just look at the numbers: compared with the US, Germany’s cars emit 1/3 the CO2 emissions per person, and cause less than half as many traffic deaths. And it’s a safer place for bicyclists, with a quarter the US fatality rate for cyclists, after adjusting for the number of miles biked. And even though Germans take transit far more frequently than do Americans, government subsidies account for only 26 percent of transit agencies’ budgets in Germany, compared with 62 percent in the US.
The question is: why? What gives Germany the edge?
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The article presents a nice summary of the major policy differences that have helped move Germany into the forefront of sustainable transportation within the developed world. Standing head and shoulders above the rest is the high cost of driving—gas taxes, vehicle sales taxes, car registration, and drivers licensing are all more expensive in Germany than in the US. As of 2006, gas taxes averaged 42 cents per gallon in the US; in Germany, they were $3.60.
Paradoxically, though, the high cost of driving doesn’t make transportation as a whole more expensive. Although Germans still take 60 percent of their trips inside a car or light truck, the trips tend to be shorter, and they’re in more efficient vehicles. And more households find that they can make do without a car, or with only one car per household instead of two or more. As a result, Germans spend 14 percent of their overall household budgets on transportation, compared with 19 percent in the US. This is an example of how regressive taxes (i.e., gas taxes) can sometimes lead to progressive end results (i.e., more transportation options and lower household spending on transportation).
The Brookings article lists a host of additional policy differences that separate Germany and the US: lower speed limits in cities; car-free zones in downtowns; annual vehicle registration fees tuned to engine size and emissions; coordinated transit, bike, and pedestrian planning; and land-use planning that favors (or at least doesn’t prohibit) higher-density housing near already-developed areas.
I’d argue that there’s one factor that the article misses: history. Germany’s major urban cores were all fully developed well before the rise of the automobile—in eras when walking, horses, and maybe transit were the common means of transportation. As a result, there’s just not a lot of room for cars in most of the major German cities. Car-oriented development is inherently spread out, because cars require lots of room for both streets and parking; and the fact that Germany’s major urban areas were already densely built out in the 1950s made them harder to retrofit for the car. In contrast, many US urban areas, particularly in the West and South, were just taking off in the 1950s. Older US cities (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, DC) are less car dependent than many of the cities that boomed in the last 60 years (Atlanta, LA, and, yes, Portland and Seattle). History gives these older places a real edge in sustainable transportation—not only because of smart transportation policies in the present, but because of decisions made for unrelated reasons decades or even centuries ago.
Having lived in Germany for quite a few years, speed limits are consistently higher in German cities (and, of course, on the Autobahns) and speed limit enforcement is less frequent and substantially less costly (typical violations run $20, compared to around $140 here).
The key differentiators are (a) better drivers education (b) much better infrastructure for non-car/truck participants in traffic and (c) emphasis on personal responsibility (nobody would dream of forcing cyclists to wear helmets).
Russ Kevin Childers
Having lived and traveled in Germany for about 6 years in the 1980s, I would add that I rarely felt a desire for a car, let alone a need, due to the incredible transit systems. While I lived there, the Federal Republic of Germany was almost exactly the same size as Oregon, but with a population of I believe over 60 million. So the density also lends itself to a ar easier solution than in a country the size and population of the US. They also do not have such dogmatic anti-tax forces. Not that this all excuses what is often a feeble attempt here.
Here’s an interesting way to slice the safety data, by time traveled rather than by distance. In the US, assuming the average cycling speed to be 10 mph, 100 million miles is 10 million hours of bike travel, with 18.8 fatalities per 10 million hours. Car travel, assuming an average speed (city and highway) of 40 mph, means a billion miles is 25 million hours, and the fatality rate is 14.4 for 25 million hours, or about 6 for 10 million hours, meaning that you are three times as likely to be killed in an hour of biking than in an hour of car travel. In Germany, however, you have a rate of 4 bike fatalities per 10 million hours, and 12.5 car fatalities per 25 million hours (assuming the same speeds in the two places), or about 5 for 0 million hours. In other words, bike travel in Germany is safer per hour (without helmets–I was just in Germany and saw almost no cyclists wearing helmets) than car travel, while in the US it is three times as dangerous. Of course, we are only talking about fatal accidents, and I don’t have any data on injuries. But what’s going on here (and there)?
Well, there never has been any evidence that wearing bike helmets has any positive impact on safety, so that’s basically down to how freedom and liberty are seen in the target country 😉
As for drivers education – in Germany, it’s usually theory followed by practice, with practical training including a mandatory number of hours, and mandatory autobahn driving, driving in an unknown city and night driving. Driving educators have a high opinion of their own skills and thrive on establishing a high bar for students. Mine would attempt to create shock situations, trap me and hit my triceps real hard with his fist to leave a lasting impression. Worked, but not necessarily a feasible solution for the states. It’s rare to see German drivers not be aware of their surroundings, do the shoulder-check or use their signals, though.
Infrastructure – omnipresent bike lanes and bike crossings. The netherlands do it way better and go further with round-about red, but this kind of infrastructure makes cyclists an expected everyday part of the commute. Better street lighting, too.
Enforcement – if you’d try to park your car in such a manner that it obscures the view around a street corner, you’d probably end up being towed in under half an hour. In the states, we care more about speeding tickets, if I weight just my anecdotal evidence of speedtraps vs number of SUVs parked right on corners.
Steve, one of the main things going on, is that there are networks of safe routes where people of all ages can bike without danger from cars. When I spent a month in Erlangen, Germany I was amazed at the variety of bike routes, all clearly marked. There are bike-only sections of many sidewalks; there are dedicated cycle tracks parallel to highways, far enough away to mitigate some of the noise and emissions from the highway; there is a pedestrian-only section of the main street downtown, with a bike-only street parallel to it one block away; there are greenway cycle/pedestrian paths that lead to roads where bikes and pedestrians have the right-of-way, but cars are allowed with a very slow speed limit; the main shopping mall has huge bike racks out front… You can cycle to many areas without encountering high-speed cars. Plus, due to the historic urban compactness that Clark mentioned, you can reach your destination at a leisurely pace, without taking forever to get there.
A primary reason of higher CO2 emission of travel per capita in U.S. is that most cities do not have adequate mass transit infrastructure. This is especially true for rural states, as shown in my papers and my blog post. Big cities (e.g. New York) have less transport related CO2 emission per capita due to excellent mass transit infrastructure and its use by public.
I fully concur comments of Steve Harrell on safety concerns of bicycle riders especially in a mixed traffic lane. If you review road transport safety statistics in developing countries (Bangkok-Thailand, Karachi-Pakistan, Sao Paulo-Brazil) most of fatalities involve non-motorized traffic, bikers and cyclists, pedestrians.
You could promote cycling in dedicated lanes and for trails BUT making this a part of mainline traffic lanes is a risky proposition in the name of sustainable transport. The same funds can be better utilized to enhance mass transit infrastructure (bus, light rail, etc) with improved safety and reduced emissions and less congested roads.