Rural areas also benefit from the mobility transition.
The choice of transport in inner cities is increasingly diverse. Yet, for the majority of rural residents, cars are the number one means of transport. For longer journeys and even for shorter trips, the car is the most preferred mode of transport for people outside urban areas. Cars are also the predominant form of transport among those going on outings and holiday trips, which make up a considerable share of the total kilometres driven in Germany each year. The immense challenge now is for policymakers to develop climate friendly alternatives to conventional cars. One solution would be to increase efficiency through technological improvements. Another would be to shift transport demand to more environmentally friendly modes.
The majority of Germans live in medium-sized cities and so-called Speckgürtel – suburban areas around large urban centres. The dream of owning a house in the country is shared by many. Jobs, however, are usually found in city centres or their outskirts. This has given rise to many roads linking cities with the surrounding countryside and to large volumes of commuter traffic. Together with more flexible working hours and living arrangements, this results in more people who are willing to travel ever greater distances to work and more cars on the road. The further settlements lie apart, the greater the distance each person must travel every day.77 Subsidies such as commuter allowances and tax benefits for company cars – which increase the amount of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere – only worsen this problem.
Private cars remain important in rural areas
The number of kilometres driven daily is higher in the countryside than in cities. So is the availability of cars. In places with fewer than 50,000 residents, nearly 600 cars per 1,000 residents are registered, whereas in cities with over 500,000 residents, only 360 cars per 1,000 residents are registered.78 Conversely, the availability and quality of public transport decreases as population density declines. Because cars are so readily available, public transport services cannot compete. Nonetheless, public transport remains a crucial public service for disabled people and those who don’t own a car. While in the countryside, alternative transport services such as carpooling platforms and peer-to-peer sharing services are becoming increasingly easier to use as new technologies spread, it will be some time before economically viable business models arise due to scattered demand. Due in part to the provisions of the Public Transport Act (Personen-Beförderungsgesetz, or PBefG), a promising approach that has been largely overlooked uses cross-funding programmes between areas of high and low demand.
Today, mobility for residents in rural areas greatly depends on cars and this shows no sign of lessening. To ensure that car use meets climate change mitigation targets, the government must do more to promote electric vehicles. There are concerns about the limited range of battery electric vehicles, but these are easily disproven: electric vehicles can service 80 to 87% of all journeys made by rural and suburban residents.79 Detailed studies of typical driver profiles show that battery life is sufficient for longer commuter routes as well.80 The lack of recharging stations, a reoccurring problem in cities, plays much less of a role outside city centres, as electric cars can easily be charged at home. Once Germany’s new legislation to promote electric cars comes into effect, people will be able to charge their cars at the workplace, as well.81 Moreover, energy generation at home provides additional benefits. For example, roof solar power panels can produce energy that can be used for charging vehicles at home (Insight 9).
Electrification and cleaner mobility work in concert
Switching to electric vehicles in suburban areas is not the only way to mitigate climate change. There’s considerable potential to shift from cars to alternative means of transport that not only are better for the environment but also reduce commuter traffic.82 Remarkably, people take longer in cities to get to work than in rural areas. Shorter commutes are surprisingly more common in rural areas without large regional centres. On average, 30% of rural commuters need no more than ten minutes to get to work. What is more, 70% of workers living outside urban centres travel by car to work, regardless of commuting times (figure 4.1).83
These findings offer starting points for new climate-friendly approaches to commuter traffic. Some 29% of commutes are shorter than five kilometres and 20% are between five and ten kilometres. For such short distances, alternatives such as bicycles or pedelecs are good options for reducing the volume of commuter traffic and the environmental damage it causes. Pedelecs – bicycles equipped with electric motors – allow riders to cover more ground in a shorter time. Studies show that cycling 15 kilometres with a pedelec bike is for most people an attractive alternative to using car – and also cheaper. Businesses have already made good progress in managing new transport solutions such as pedelecs.84 For some time now, firms have offered company bicycle policies to encourage more workers to ride. If more people are to commute to work by bicycles or pedelecs on a regular basis, however, they will need pleasant, uninterrupted bike paths, express lanes and secure bike parking. Tourists, as well, would benefit from such improvements.85
The infrastructure of regional public transport networks also plays a decisive role in commuter behaviour. In regions with good route coverage, commuters take public transit more often. If networks are well connected, people tend to use them more frequently.
Innovations in public transport bring alternative mobility options to rural areas
New approaches are essential for an effective expansion and modernisation of current transport services across Germany. Public transport services in most rural areas are often poorly organised, characterised by long waits and gaps in service. Multi- or intermodal trips are almost impossible, making travelling by public transport less efficient and less convenient in rural areas. As a result, cars remain the primary choice of transport. At least 50% of all trips by the majority of residents regardless of age group are made by car.86
Students and trainees are the most frequent users of public transport services in rural areas. Indeed, school transport is a major revenue source for public transport in rural areas, and many schedules and routes reflect this. Nevertheless, the number of students is on the decline in rural areas. If this demographic trend continues, an important source of funding for rural public transit could dry up.
Given this current situation, it is time to rethink and redesign rural mobility (figure 4.2). Current demand for regular bus service can be met by using smaller vehicles instead of larger (but mostly empty) coaches. Such vehicles could be used flexibly on demand and deploy smart routing systems to improve existing services. For instance, advancing already existing dial-a-ride services based on digital technologies would be a more efficient way of handling lower demand for school transport while increasing public interest in new transport services. What is more, it would keep costs down when demand is low. In areas with low demand and high operating costs, an alternative like this would improve mobility for rural residents and safeguard the budgets of transport companies.
Another prospect for the future of mobility in rural areas is the implementation of driverless cars. Once market-ready automated vehicles are available, they might represent an affordable and attractive way to expand public transport services even in low demand areas (see Insight 5). Bookable anytime, anywhere, they provide most of the flexibility of owning a private car. A number of pilot projects and citizens’ initiatives have also found that transport services such as bike- and carsharing are feasible if they reflect local demand, and that they are especially desirable for recreational trips.