Two cyclists on the road in the city

How Germany commutes

More and more workers in Germany commute daily to their workplace; increasingly frustrated by crowded streets, traffic jams, poor bus and train connections or lacking bike paths. The domestic media highlighted the topic for a week after, in early March, a published evaluation of the Federal Institute for Construction, Urban and Spatial Research (BBSR) in Bonn had set a new record. Accordingly, 60 percent of all employees subject to social security contributions in Germany in 2016 went to work in another municipality – in 2000, it was “only” 53 percent.

According to the BBSR, in 2015 the average commute distance also increased from 14.6 kilometers to 16.8 kilometers; a figure resulting when all routes are calculated together. A differentiated overview is provided by an evaluation from the German Mobility Panel (MOP) prepared by the Institute of Transportation at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT): in the reporting period of autumn 2015, almost half of all commuters (48 per cent) covered one-way distances of less than ten kilometres, 22 percent between 10 and less than 20 kilometres. According to the BBSR, the number of long-distance commuters with a one-way commute distance of more than 150 kilometres is currently around 1.3 million. Nevertheless, commuting takes place predominantly in the area of local traffic: only 6 percent of commuters travel 50 kilometres and more from their homes to work (see box))

Short stretches, long distances

Traffic jams due to crowded streets and construction sites, delays in bus and rail transport, and poor travel connections ensure that even short journeys can often only be covered at a snail’s pace. “Germany’s commuters are fed up!” was the Bild newpaper´s conclusion evidenced by a newspaper page kaleidoscopically filled with the depictions of those affected.

It is clear that the number of persons with longer commuting times 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 the journey to work in 1991; today it is already 25.9 percent.

Every twentieth worker commutes for an hour or more; time that she or he could use to regenerate. Furthermore, added to this are unpredictable traffic jams or other delays caused by non-punctual buses and trains. Lack of time and its associated stress are considered by many doctors to represent a serious threat to health. A much-cited study by the Techniker Krankenkasse from 2012 comes to the conclusion that commuters have an increased risk of becoming mentally ill.

Government assistance?

Alarmed by the broad media interest, the German government also spoke up: “We want to help companies to offer their employees better mobility conditions,” said Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks to the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe, citing job tickets, carpooling, bicycle parking spaces or more flexible home office offers.

Previously, Berlin had already announced that it wanted to expand speedy bicycle traffic for commuters with further new bicycle fast lanes. For the first time, in the current year, the Federal government is promoting cycle freeways with an additional 25 million euros, Transport Secretary Norbert Barthle (CDU) announced to the press. The Federal government had increased its funds for cycle paths from 60 million to a total of 100 million euros per year.

Has the Federal government changed its tune? The German Cyclists Association (ADFC) criticises that, as before, the responsibility for increasing the proportion of cycle traffic is left solely to the states and municipalities, accusing the Federal Minister of Transport for “lacking political commitment to cycling”. The municipalities are responsible for large parts of the transport infrastructure in this country. A prerequisite for a large number of working people switching to bicycles is likely to be provision, together with transport companies, of safe and fast bike paths and adequate parking spaces.

A recently published representative survey of the Federal Ministry for the Environment confirms the importance of infrastructure, such as cycle path surfaces, signposting, route guidance or bicycle lanes. In large cities, more than 40 percent of respondents also want safe/sheltered parking spaces. Simultaneously, the survey suggests that 60 percent of the population in cities over 100,000 and even 66 percent in cities between 20,000 and 100,000 are generally willing to cycle more often.

Better commuting healthily

Since most of the journeys made by commuters every day are far less than a total of 40 kilometres, bicycles, pedelecs and e-bikes are a serious alternative to motorised private transport (MIV). Longer distances can be combined with public transport, provided that the connections are suitable.

Since 2012, the purchase of bicycles by employers is subsidised for tax purposes: The “1% rule” from the so-called company car privilege applies now in a similar way for bicycles and e-bikes since a new tax regulation from November 2012. Employees can conveniently finance their new bike, pedelec or e-bike with defined salary contributions via their monthly paycheck and thus save money. In the process, company bicycles are even better subsidised than company cars: the journey to work by bike does not have to be taxed.

Riding a bike to work is definitely healthier: scientific studies show that bike commuters have significantly fewer sick days than other road users, especially MIV users (see also our article Why employees should be on bikes).

It is estimated that two million Germans use their bicycle daily to commute to work. It could be more.

Distance from place of residence to workplace Share of commuters per respective distance
0 up to less than 10 km 48%
10 up to less than 20 km 22%
20 up to less than 30 km 12%
30 up to less than 40 km 8%
40 up to less than 50 km 4%
50 km and more 6%

Average distance between place of residence and workplace: 16.4 km. Only 91% of the MOP sample with commuter routes (defined as journeys for the purpose of work: paths to tertiary education institutions, training places, school are not included) could be taken into account for this evaluation; in 9% of the sample with commuter routes a statement was not possible because they either never commuted directly from home to work during the week or visited very different distant places of work. Source: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Institute of Transportation

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