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“In our village, there is hardly anyone who does not own a car. Two, three, four cars in a family is quite normal,” said Britta Seifert. She lives in the heart of the Eifel region in western Germany, in Krälingen, a small village of less than 400 inhabitants. In terms of cars, his village is nothing special.

If you live in the countryside in Germany, chances are you drive a car. Trains and buses rarely run in many areas and do not connect all villages. It is therefore not surprising that 90% of households in rural Germany own at least one car. In cities, the situation is different. There, almost half of the households manage without their own car.

It takes about 20 minutes from Seifert to drive to the next bigger town. The bus only runs once an hour and takes twice as long. “That’s why our public transport is so unattractive,” she said. “An errand that takes me about an hour by car takes me three hours by bus.”

Car privileges discourage use of public transport

In a move to tackle climate change, Germany’s new government has set a goal of reducing traffic in rural areas. The coalition agreement stipulates that all citizens have well-connected, affordable and climate-friendly transport options suitable for everyday use. But there hasn’t been much movement yet, said Andreas Knie. He leads the digital mobility research group at the Center for Social Science Research in Berlin.

“We still have an amazing car subsidy policy in Germany,” he told DW. “The new federal government has chosen not to tackle car privileges. For example, there are subsidies and tax breaks for people who travel by car and for those who drive a diesel engine or a company car , and there is no general speed limit.”

If you took those perks away, driving a car wouldn’t be as appealing, Knie said. And if drivers had to pay the real costs of driving – for example, if environmental and climate damage or land consumption were also taken into account – owning a car would become less attractive.

Rethinking the last mile

But that’s not enough to discourage the urge to drive. A vicious circle must also be broken. Few people in rural areas currently use public transport. This leads to reduced options, which leads to even fewer users.

But that could change, especially if the main roads between major cities were connected by buses and trains that run regularly. People coming from further afield could board at these transportation hubs. “You need to rethink the infamous last mile. Everyone needs to be able to get to a hub without their own car. Digitization and smartphones could play a big role,” Knie said.

Cycle paths could be installed on country roads by reallocating existing space

There are many potential solutions for arranging transportation to major hubs. Those who drive their own car could drive others. Subsidized taxis could be called when needed. Villages could use community buses driven by volunteer drivers or they could buy shared electric cars. Carpool benches are another option: sitting on them would signal to passers-by that you need a lift.

Walking and cycling have a role to play

The last kilometer could also be covered by bicycle. But that requires a safe cycle lane system, which is largely non-existent in rural areas at present, according to Knie. “Every road should have a safe, designated cycle lane. We don’t need to seal off additional surfaces and create new paths to achieve this. We just need to reallocate space,” he said, quoting examples in the Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia. countries.

A public bus travels down a country road in Saxony, Germany

Buses in rural Germany run too infrequently to be practical for many people

It should be noted that neither of these countries is a major auto producer, Knie said. In Germany, on the other hand, any attempt to reduce car traffic would be seen as an attack on the car industry and, therefore, on jobs. But cycling and walking have a lot to offer. Almost half of the distances traveled in rural areas are less than four kilometers and could easily be covered by bicycle or on foot, he said.

Floods slow progress

In Krälingen too, cycle paths are rare. Even so, for a time, Britta Seifert’s daughter, now 17, cycled to school on country roads. “She often complained about cars coming dangerously close to her as they passed,” Seifert said.

In the meantime, her daughter has switched to a micro car, which minors are allowed to drive. This means that the three-member Seifert household owns three cars.

But improving public transport is a topic of discussion in the region around Krälingen, said Seifert, who is an honorary councilor in her municipality of Altenahr. The first works have already started. A few carpooling benches have been installed and subsidized taxis for seniors and schoolchildren have been set up. But disastrous flooding in the Ahr Valley last summer halted new projects, Seifert said.

“Now roads need to be built or repaired. But I think there will be more to come in the future.”

Edited by: Kristie Pladson

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