A study comparing the two countries shows vast differences in how cars are used.
The modern highway was invented in Germany, and Germans love their cars. Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW make rather nice ones. But as Eric Jaffe of Citylab notes,
Compared to Americans, Germans own fewer cars, drive them shorter distances and less frequently, and walk and cycle and ride transit more often. They have slimmer waistlines to show for their active transport habits and suffer fewer traffic deaths whether in a car or not. They spend less household income on getting around even as they pay much more in driving costs. They use less energy per person on ground transport, resulting in lower carbon emissions.
He is mining a study comparing Washington DC to Stuttgart by Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech and associates in Germany (behind a very expensive paywall) and shows the data all in on one big chart, and it is really interesting; the Germans own 585 cars per 1000 of population, compared to the Americans at 766; they travel about half as far in them. See the whole chart here.
But the most remarkable differences are in the safety and health statistics.Traffic fatalities are less than half, but look at the pedestrian and cycling fatalities, a fraction of the USA. Jaffe explains some of the reasons:
National policy differences have clearly driven the driving gap. Germany has a tradition of coordinating transportation and land use efforts toward policy goals that stretch across levels of government, such as reducing sprawl, cutting emissions, and promoting public transit. Its narrow zoning laws are better suited to transit-oriented, mixed-use development, and in recent decades it's made a strong push at the federal level to fund transit initiatives.
It is really all about decisions made at the government level, mostly related to urban planning; in the USA after the second world war, it was official policy to decentralize everything to make the nation safer from Russian missiles. There was a National Dispersion Policy that had the aim of "reducing population and building densities in residential areas of greatest vulnerability by adoption of program of urban redevelopment and slum clearance." Shawn Lawrence Otto, writing in Fool Me Twice, wrote:
These accommodations for defense brought about an immense change in the fabric of America, altering everything from transportation to land development to race relations to modern energy use and the extraordinary public sums that are spent on building and maintaining roads— creating challenges and burdens that are with us today, all because of science and the bomb.
In the USA after the war, they destroyed cities by dispersing industry, business and the white population; in Germany, they rebuilt their cities, at different rates in the west and the east, but rarely around the American dispersed model. The result is that they were dense enough to support transit and bike infrastructure and they didn't ignore the pedestrian.
I was in Berlin last year and found that public transportation could take you anywhere, and that when you were on a bike you were treated with care and respect by the drivers, even when there were no bike lanes. I am off to Munich tonight for the International Passivhaus Conference, and will have my camera out to see how it compares.