New Mobility

Further increase in the number of commuters

The number of people in employment in Germany who commute from home to work and back has been rising for years. In addition, the distances travelled are becoming longer and longer, meaning that the average commuting time is constantly increasing. This has a variety of effects, not only on individual quality of life, but also on traffic development and, last but not least, on the environment.

Before we go into more detail on individual aspects, let's take a look at some important figures:

  • According to the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR), 20.3 million employees subject to social insurance contributions did not work in the municipality in which they live as at 30 June 2022.
  • This means that the number of commuters has risen again by around 700,000 compared to the previous year.
  • Commuters make up 60 per cent of all employees subject to social insurance contributions.
  • The average distance travelled (one way between home and work) is 17.2 kilometres.
  • 7.1 million commuters travelled more than 30 kilometres to work in 2022 (2021: 6.6 million), 3.9 million even more than 50 kilometres (2021: 3.6 million).

Why do so many Germans commute?

The reasons are varied and can be very individual. For example, rising rents and property prices in cities are causing people to move to the surrounding areas and compensate for longer commutes with lower housing costs. A localised partner can also be an individual reason for commuting, as can children who need to continue attending the same school after changing jobs.

There are also socio-political conditions that make commuting attractive. In urban centres, there are more jobs on offer, while the housing market is very tight. In structurally weaker rural regions, on the other hand, where the situation on the housing market is more relaxed, there is often a lack of attractive job opportunities.

Another factor in the attractiveness of commuting can be found in the Income Tax Act. Section 9 of the Income Tax Act regulates the so-called commuting allowance, which is usually referred to as the commuter allowance. This allows employees to claim the costs of travelling to work against tax. It does not matter which means of transport they use.

Keyword: Commuter allowance

The commuter allowance has an astonishingly long history. As early as 1900, the Prussian Higher Administrative Court had to deal with the tax assessment of travelling expenses for the first time. From 1920, "necessary expenses" for travelling between home and work were included in the Income Tax Act as deductible. Since then, the law has been amended several times.


Alone in the car?

Considering the current challenges, but also the new opportunities presented by the changing world of work, commuting seems to have fallen a little out of time.

Sustainability is closely linked to the reduction of CO₂. In the Climate Protection Act, the German government has set "greenhouse gas reduction targets" for various sectors. According to these targets, overall emissions are to be reduced by at least 65 per cent by 2030 and by at least 88 per cent by 2040 compared to 1990 levels.

The problem: while greenhouse gas emissions have already fallen in many sectors, according to the Federal Environment Agency, this is not yet apparent in the transport sector. Although lorries and cars have become more efficient, the increasing volume of traffic is cancelling out these savings. Commuting by car is also problematic, as the capacity of cars does not play a major role here: commuters usually sit alone in their vehicles.

Solution: New transport concepts are needed so that the transport sector can make its necessary contribution to reducing emissions. Ideas such as car sharing and car pools could reduce commuter traffic, as could the expansion of local public transport. However, this requires either a social rethink or political framework conditions.

Impulse: In order to reduce commuter traffic, not only financial incentives are needed for frequent travellers, but also for infrequent travellers in particular.

Keyword: Commuter satisfaction

How does commuting to work affect subjective well-being? The Federal Institute for Population Research (issue 5/2022) has looked into this question. According to the study, the choice of transport and the length of the journey to work play an important role in commuter satisfaction. People who use public transport and walk or cycle to work are more satisfied than those who commute by car. Various studies show that this has an impact on the mood at work and general well-being.


Remote work and co-working spaces

The many reasons for commuting often cannot be changed in the short or medium term. The housing market in metropolitan areas with a high number of jobs will not change sufficiently in the foreseeable future. The same applies to the availability of jobs in structurally weaker regions where the housing situation is more relaxed.

However, the fact that the labour market has changed in the years of the pandemic is encouraging. Increasing digitalisation has made it possible in some industries and professions to work from home to some extent. Every day spent working from home directly saves CO₂, meaning that remote work can make an important contribution to reducing commuter traffic and emissions from the transport sector.

However, remote work does not automatically have to mean working from home; decentralised workplaces or co-working spaces can also play an important role. The establishment of co-working spaces could solve a previously less discussed problem of remote working: Many homes are not particularly suitable for working. For example, they are too small and there is no workspace where people can work productively. There may also be a lack of infrastructural requirements such as a sufficient internet connection or ergonomic office furniture.

Conclusion: the end of the commuter paradise?

Germany may currently be considered a commuter paradise, but the negative effects of long journeys to work on the environment and individual well-being cannot be overlooked. If the number of commuters is to be significantly reduced as part of a sustainable transport concept, this can only be achieved by taking a holistic approach. A political framework is needed that promotes sustainable mobility instead of incentivising commuting. But it will also not work without social acceptance and willingness. Both of these are major challenges that need to be solved in order to reverse the trend.

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