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REPORT: Sustainable Transport that Works: Lessons from Germany

Freiburg, Germany is one of the most livable and people-oriented cities in the world. Photo by Roby©.

Transport and urban development policies in European cities are recognized as being more balanced than those of the rest of the world, resulting in competitive, attractive, denser and high quality urban environments. There are plenty of best practices, and in an energy- and carbon-constrained world, they show great examples on how to retrofit American cities and how to evolve developing cities.

Some of the most prolific researchers in this field are “Car-Free John” Pucher and Ralph Buhler.

In a recent publication, “Sustainable Transport that Works: Lessons from Germany,” they make a very comprehensive comparison between Germany and the United States. (See a link to this same study on our previous post, “Germany Could Teach U.S. a Lesson.”) They are not shy in pointing out that “the United States is perhaps the best known example of unsustainable transport… that is mainly due to rapidly increasing reliance on the private car for daily travel,” while Germany has been able to “balance high levels of car ownership with safe and convenient public transport, cycling, and walking alternatives.” According to the authors, Germany shows that “the car can peacefully co-exist with other modes of transport, provided the right policies are adopted to restrict car use in those situations where it is most problematic.“

The authors conclude that urban transport in Germany shows greater sustainability than the U.S. (and for that matter, all the countries following the U.S. paradigm of motorization and sprawl), due to very explicit public policies to promote walking, biking, public transport and dense land use, while discouraging automobile use.

Of special interest is a comparison of passenger travel and sustainable indicators (Table 2 in their article):






GHG Emission (2005)

Car CO2 emissions (car and light truck use per capita in kg)



Car Fuel Efficiency (2005)

Miles per gallon (existing vehicle fleet of cars and light trucks)



Passenger Transportation Energy Use (2004/2005)

Mega joules per person year



Mega joules per passenger kilometre



Cars and light trucks avg.



Transit bus



Light rail



Heavy rail



Household Transport Expenditures (2003)

% of household budget for transport (2003)



Traffic Safety (2002-2005)

Traffic fatalities per 100,000 population




Traffic fatalities per kilometre of travel




Cyclist fatalities per 100 million km




Pedestrian fatalities per 100 million km




Car fatalities per billion km



Transit Subsidies (2006)

Government subsidy as share of public transportation operating budgets in %



Sources: FHWA (1990-2008), BMVBS (BMVBS, 1991-2008), DESTATIS (DESTATIS, 2003), U.S. Department of Labour (2003), Pucher (2004), UBA (2005c), APTA (2006), (2006), FHWA (2006), IRTAD (2006), ORNL (2008), Pucher and Buehler (2008), VDV (VDV, 2008)

The difference in energy efficiency in transit is remarkable, partially explained by land use policies (i.e. denser, mixed use development) and traffic demand management measures (i.e. higher fuel taxes and other policies to discourage car use, such as parking management), which result in much greater occupancies and reduce the need for transit subsidies.

The authors use a good portion of their article explaining the success story of Freiburg, Germany, one of the most livable and people-oriented cities in the world, which even has car-less neighborhoods that have attracted the attention of global media.

For those interested in good practices in sustainable urban development and transport, Buhler and Pucher provide us with plenty of data, pictures and examples, which in no way undermine the quality of life and economic vitality of the urban areas. Moving in this direction is also change you can believe in.

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  • In the earliest times humans would look at the sky and explore the universe. ,

  • This article is taken from the latest number of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice, which I really think you should have properly credited, given their years of pioneering work on these isssues, going back to 1993. That’s

  • Dario Hidalgo

    Chris, I understand that the figure refers to farebox recovery ratio, which compares the revenues with the operational costs. With increased usage, this figure shrinks, reducing the need for large subsidies. Reducing subsidies in transit to zero may not be an efficient goal for the society as a whole though. If the price of public transport is too high, or the quality of the service is low to acheive a balance, you could end up with increased use of individual transport. Subsidies in transit are not bad policy on their own, because transit has large positive externalities (local and global emissions, accident reduction, congestion abatement). For a good microeconomic analysis on this issue check Sergio Jara-Diaz and Antonio Gshwender

  • Would be nice to see greater discussion of 70% vs. 33% public support of transit, particularly as this is an article on sustainable transit. Hopefully transit could be fiscally sustainable as well and not relying on public finance based on debt.