Bumper to bumper, eye to eye with the cuddly rabbit sitting on the parcel shelf of the car in front, teeth gnashing in frustration – this is how many people often spend their daily commute through Cologne city center. Rush hour is a much more relaxed affair during the holidays, when it only takes three traffic light intervals rather than the usual five to hustle my car through the first intersection. Quite often, I can then push the accelerator pedal down a few millimeters and accelerate to 50km/h. Some of the keener speed merchants then roar past me at 55 km/h in an attempt to break away from the army of ordinary cars, desperately searching all over the road for gaps in the traffic and ending up one car length ahead of me at the next set of traffic lights. Still, I think, at least he has passed two cars and is a second or two closer to his destination. On the journey home in the afternoon, the stream of cars flowing out of Cologne’s medieval roads converge to form a sedate queue. In the summer, when everything moves at walking pace, the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius in the shade and the windows are open – as my air conditioning system simply gives up in the extreme heat – I listen to the soft murmur of the traffic as the bluish-grey haze of exhaust fumes slowly wafts up my nose and think to myself: “Why am I still doing this? Out of habit? Convenience? Because it supposedly saves me time? Or because there is no other alternative?”
Why do I still reach for my car keys?
It might be a combination of different reasons, the most logical of which rarely impact my decision-making or inspire me to change my ways. The rational arguments of time and flexibility that make me grab my car keys every day no longer hold up. In the afternoons, it takes me at least as long to get home in the car as it would on the subway, and sometimes longer. Yes, I can get into the car at any desired moment in the morning or afternoon. My traffic app shows me different flexible options for maneuvering through the hustle and bustle of the city as quickly and skilfully as possible and tells me which tailback is the shortest. Nevertheless, it usually takes longer than the app predicts and does not take into account the actual situation as it unfolds.
Generally, the quickest route takes me down a busy street lined with shops. Unloading trucks, pedestrians, cars and cyclists jostle for every spare centimeter of space on a road that feels about five meters wide, all aiming to stay on their chosen route while remaining as unscathed as possible. Although I would undoubtedly get to my destination a few minutes sooner by taking this route, it means shredding a few nerves in the process.
Cologne in numbers: traffic density on the rise
What’s more, road users in Cologne are not expected to decrease in the foreseeable future; on the contrary, this city on the Rhine is growing like many other major cities. With around 1.09 million people living in Cologne as of 2018, estimates suggest that the city’s population will continue to grow until at least 2040. The number of newly registered cars rose by more than 4,000 to 554,853 between 2017 and 2018, while the 12 permanent bicycle counting stations in the Cologne metropolitan area registered more than ten million cyclists in 2018, up from 8.8 million in the previous year.
Traffic volumes are undoubtedly still growing. This also includes hip new vehicles such as the e-scooters that now adorn the city’s mobile landscape – provided they don’t end up in the Rhine. These numbers impressively demonstrate the teeming mass of vehicles that dominates Cologne’s streets and will continue to do so well into the future.
But what does that mean for me and my daily commute? There are plenty of alternative modes of transport – from cars, e-scooters and bicycles to buses and trains. If I cycled to work, for example, I could remain just as flexible as I do with the car and wouldn’t need to rely on any predetermined timetables. Traffic jams also mean that cycling is not significantly slower than driving. However, one trial journey on my bike caused me to rule out this option fairly quickly. The high number of cyclists on the road meant I found several cycle paths to be too narrow – and attempts to separate cycle and car lanes from each other with different colored strips on the road were not particularly successful. Although it seemed to me to be better than nothing, it felt far from safe. Admittedly, I also couldn’t imagine myself defying the elements in all weathers to ride 11 kilometers each way to work on my bike every day.
The benefits of rail travel
In this case, the subway option – far away from traffic jams and cars jockeying for space – seemed a far better idea. So I took a chance on Cologne’s public transport network by taking the subway to work several times a week to see how it worked out. It was also interesting to find out what I value more: the habit and convenience of getting straight into my car but then sitting in traffic jams, or waiting at stations and following timetables but getting to my destination relatively quickly and smoothly.
After several months of traveling by a mix of train and car, I realized that a completely different set of factors – most of them less rational – help to determine the mode of transport I choose. The big advantage of rail travel is that I can devote more of my attention to recreational activities like reading, listening to audiobooks or simply relaxing and switching off. Occasionally, it also gives me the opportunity to chat with colleagues I hardly ever get a chance to talk to. All of this means that, after some initial hesitation, I have discovered several benefits of leaving my car at home. I don’t yet know whether I’ll continue to take the train and make even more of this opportunity. There are several good reasons for doing this, even without taking into account the many environmental aspects. Whatever the case, I’m also open to alternatives and other interesting ideas.