How professionals in Germany commute

More and more working people in Germany are commuting to and from work every day – and are increasingly annoyed by congested roads, traffic jams, poor bus and rail connections or a lack of bike paths. For a week, the domestic media dealt with the topic after an evaluation published at the beginning of March by the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) in Bonn cited a new record value. According to the study, 60 percent of all employees in Germany subject to social insurance contributions drove to their job in another municipality in 2016 – in 2000, the figure was “only” 53 percent.

According to the BBSR, the average commute distance traveled also increased from 14.6 kilometers to 16.8 kilometers in 2015. A number that is arrived at when all the routes are offset against each other. An evaluation of the German Mobility Panel (MOP) compiled by the Institute of Transportation at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) provides a differentiated picture: according to this, almost half of all commuters (48 percent) covered simple distances of less than ten kilometers in the reporting period fall 2015, 22 percent between 10 and less than 20 kilometers. According to the BBSR, the number of long-distance commuters with a one-way commute of more than 150 kilometers is currently around 1.3 million. Nevertheless, commuting takes place predominantly in the local transport sector: Only 6 percent of commuters travel 50 kilometers or more from their place of residence to their place of work (see box)

Short distances, long ways

However, traffic jams caused by overcrowded roads and construction sites, delays in bus and train services, and poor transport connections mean that even short distances can often only be covered at a snail’s pace. “Germany’s commuters are fed up!” was the verdict of the German tabloid Bild in its angry bourgeois diction, and it provided a kaleidoscopic newspaper page filled with the accounts of those affected.

One thing is certain: the number of people with longer commutes has been growing for years. According to the Federal Institute for Population Research in Wiesbaden, 20.4 percent of the working population in Germany needed 30 minutes or more for a one-way trip to work in 1991, and this figure has now risen to 25.9 percent.

One in twenty workers even commutes an hour or more. Time that she or he could also use for recreation. In addition, there are unpredictable traffic jams or other delays caused by unpunctual buses and trains. According to many medical experts, time constraints and the associated stress pose a serious threat to health. A much-cited study by the Techniker Krankenkasse health insurance company in 2012 concluded that commuters are said to have an increased risk of mental illness.

Help from the state?

Alarmed by the widespread media interest, the German government also spoke out: “We want to support companies in offering their employees better mobility conditions,” Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe, citing job tickets, carpooling, bicycle parking spaces and more flexible home office options in this context.

Previously, Berlin had already announced its intention to expand fast cycling for commuters with additional new cycle lanes. For the first time, the federal government is funding cycle paths with an additional 25 million euros this year, Transportation State Secretary Norbert Barthle (CDU) told the press, adding that the federal government has increased its funding for cycle paths from 60 million to a total of 100 million euros per year.

Is the federal government rethinking? The Allgemeine Deutsche Fahrrad-Club e.V. (ADFC) criticizes that responsibility for increasing the share of cycling is still left solely to the states and municipalities, and accuses the Federal Minister of Transport of “a lack of political commitment to cycling. In Germany, the municipalities are responsible for large parts of the transport infrastructure. The prerequisite for as many working people as possible to switch to bicycles should be that they work together with the transport companies to ensure safe and fast bike paths and sufficient parking facilities.

A recently published representative survey by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment confirms the importance of infrastructure such as cycle path surfaces, signage, route guidance or cycle path networks. In large cities more, 40 percent of respondents also want secure parking/storage facilities. At the same time, the survey suggests that 60 percent of the population in cities with populations over 100,000 and as many as 66 percent in cities with populations between 20,000 and 100,000 are generally willing to bike more often.

Tax incentive

Since most daily commuting distances are far less than 40 kilometers in total, bicycles, pedelecs and e-bikes actually offer themselves as a serious alternative to motorized private transport (MIV). Longer distances can be combined with public transport, provided the connections are right.

Since 2012, the acquisition of bicycles by the employer has been tax-subsidized: The “1% rule” from the so-called company car privilege also applies in a similar way to bicycles and e-bikes. Employees can finance their new bicycle, pedelec or e-bike through their monthly payroll via deferred compensation and thus save cash. Company bicycles are even better off than company cars: the journey to work by bicycle does not have to be taxed.

Cycling to work is definitely healthier: Scientific studies show that bicycle commuters have significantly fewer sick days than other road users, especially MIV users (see also our article Why employees should get on their bikes).

According to estimates, two million Germans use bicycles every day to get to work. There could be more.

Distance from the place of residence to the place of work Share of commuters with the respective distance
0 to under 10 km 48%
10 to under 20 km 22%
20 to under 30 km 12%
30 to under 40 km 8%
40 to under 50 km 4%
50 km and more 6%

Mean distance between place of residence and place of work: 16.4 km. Only 91% of the MOP sample with commuting routes (defined as routes with the purpose of work, training routes to college, training place, school are not included) could be considered for this evaluation; for 9% of the sample with commuting routes, a statement was not possible because they either never commuted directly from home to work during the week or visited work locations at very different distances. Source: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Institute of Transportation