A Day in the Life What Makes the Average German Tick?

Part 3: How Germans Get to Work


7:00 a.m. Getting to Work

In the morning, when 30 million Germans are trying to get to their jobs, much of the country is in fact standing still. Those who drive are usually stuck in traffic. This daily torture is what experts mildly refer to as "traffic peaks."

The man who studies Germany's chronically snarled traffic is standing in front of a computer, looking into the future. Dirk Zumkeller heads the Institute for the Study of Traffic at the University of Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany. His job is to develop traffic forecasts. How will the construction of a high-speed rail line affect traffic? What happens when you add a new autobahn to the mix? What does it mean when store hours are extended in the evening and Germans end up driving home at a later hour? And, perhaps most important of all: Will we be stuck in traffic just as often in the future as we are today?

Zumkeller has pulled up a map of Germany on his screen, on which the road network is marked in gray. He presses a few keys and adds the color red to the mix. It spreads along Germany's roads and highways until it covers almost the entire country. Red is the color of traffic density. The thicker the red lines, the greater the risk of traffic jams. Various scenarios are possible, but the outcome is always the same: the future is red.

Germans hate traffic jams. They cost gas and precious time, and they put people in a bad mood. There are 41 million cars registered in Germany, a number that is growing, albeit slowly. Germans drive 170 billion kilometers (106 billion miles) a year in city traffic, or the equivalent of 220,000 round-trip flights to the moon. Traffic experts estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the time Germans spend in the traffic grid is time spent waiting. Average German female Sabine Müller drives 31.6 kilometers (19.6 miles) a day, while her husband Thomas drives 45.3 kilometers (28.1 miles). The average German man walks 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) and the average woman 6.9 kilometers (4.3 miles) a week.

Traffic jams also cost money. A few years ago, researchers calculated the average cost to the German economy, in lost productivity, that could be attributed to traffic jams: The figure totalled a staggering €100 billion ($160 billion). What was so miraculous about Germany's economic miracle was that it kept moving. Nowadays, Germans are realizing that many of them spend far too much time stuck in traffic, a daily irritation for some.

Most people believe that they would gain time if traffic jams could be avoided. But they are mistaken, says Zumkeller. When people gain time, they immediately use it to expand their radius of activity. We spend about 80 minutes a day getting from one place to another, says Zumkeller, and we have been doing this for a long time. Thirty years ago, Germans traveled about 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) a day; today it is 39 kilometers (24.4 miles). The easier it is for man to travel, the farther he goes.

Notorious traffic jams present the real challenge for traffic researchers. They form on all five weekdays, always in the same place, are always roughly the same size and always involve the same people.

About one-third of all traffic jams are predictable. There is only one political solution for these monster traffic jams, says Zumkeller: a system of tolls, graduated to reflect different times of the day and geographic factors. The more costly driving gets, the more people are likely to do without it. Economists argue that tolls must be set to be high enough so that traffic continues to flow, if only at a slow pace.

Politicians are afraid of tolls, though. They hope someone will come up with forecasts to show that tolls are unnecessary after all. Traffic planners like Zumkeller ask themselves a few core questions so that politicians will know what they face: How is demand changing in public transportation? What about car ownership? Fuel consumption?

According to Zumkeller, society will increasingly become divided into winners and losers. The winners will constantly expand their range of activity by taking advantage of their knowledge, money and global contacts. The losers, to put it somewhat simply, will stay where they are. Seen in this light, the commuters who spend frustrating hours in traffic every morning are losers in the game of modernization -- because they cannot afford to reduce their commutes by moving to better locations, and because they have no alternative.

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