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Making Transportation Sustainable: Insights from Germany

Worsening traffic congestion and increasing reliance on foreign oil affect America’s economic competitiveness. Excessive driving contributes to high energy consumption, carbon emissions, and pollution. The costs of maintaining the current structure are untenable. The existing gas tax cannot finance the massive investments needed to fix our deteriorating transportation system.

Increasing transportation sustainability in the United States requires policies that foster changes in travel behavior. Germany’s case may provide a helpful example. Although car use has grown in both countries, Germany has been far more successful than the United States in creating a more balanced transportation system.

Sustainability, for the purposes of this report, means encouraging shorter trips by modes of transportation that require less energy and generate less harmful environmental impacts. Moreover, a more sustainable transportation system should foster commerce, reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, increase safety, provide equal access to destinations for all groups of society, and enhance the quality of life.

America’s challenge
This report examines the key differences and determinants of travel behavior in Germany and the United States. Americans travel by car twice as much per year as Germans and use transit only a sixth as much. Differences in car reliance between the United States and Germany are not solely due to income or residential density. Germans in the highest income quartile make a lower share of their trips by car than Americans in the lowest income quartile. And Germans living in low density areas travel by car about as much as Americans living at population densities five times higher.

The result is a transportation system in the United States that is less sustainable than in Germany. The per capita carbon footprint of passenger transportation in the United States is about three times larger than in Germany. Although gas prices in the United States are half those in Germany, Americans spend five percent more of their budgets on transportation than Germans. In government outlays as well (federal, state and local), Germany spends less per capita on transportation than the United States.

German policies
German governments at all levels have influenced travel behavior through a series of policies enacted over decades. Pricing, restrictions, and mandated technological improvements help mitigate the harmful impacts of car use. Integration of public transportation at the metropolitan and national levels provide a viable alternative to the car. Targeted regional land planning policies encourage compact, mixed-use development, and thus keep trip distances short and feasible for walking or cycling. These policies were coordinated to ensure their mutually reinforcing impact.

Lessons for the United States
Public policy can play a major role in reshaping America’s transportation system. The German experience offers five lessons to the United States for improving transportation sustainability through changes in travel behavior:

  • Get the Price Right in order to encourage the use of less polluting cars, driving at non-peak hours and more use of public transportation
  • Integrate Transit, Cycling, and Walking as Viable Alternatives to the Car, as a necessary measure to make any sort of car-restrictive measures publicly and politically feasible
  • Fully Coordinate and Integrate Planning for Land Use and Transportation to discourage car-dependent sprawl and promote transit-oriented development
  • Public Information and Education to Make Changes Feasible are essential in conveying the benefits of more sustainable policies and enforcing their results over the long term
  • Implement Policies in Stages with a Long Term Perspective because it takes considerable time to gather the necessary public and political support and to develop appropriate measures.
A New Federal Approach
A window of opportunity for changes in transportation policy is opening in the United States. There is an impending transportation funding crisis, a deep recession, highly volatile energy prices, and imminent U.S. engagement in international climate change discussions. Moreover, the next update of the federal transportation law is due in the fall of 2009.

These opportunities require political commitment from Congress and the White House to a new set of federal policies. The focus should be on investing in infrastructure that supports the competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation, rather than funding unworthy pork barrel projects of individual states or districts. This will require a level playing field between all modes and a firm commitment to integrating transportation, land use, housing, and economic development plans in order to serve the projected growth over the next several decades. 


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SERIES: Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative | Number 5