Public Transport and Biking in Germany

A note about COVID-19: This guide is based on the general rules, but there may be some temporary restrictions in place due to the presence of the COVID-19 virus. We are keeping the situation under close review and will update our guidance as necessary.

Germany has a reputation for being both a nation of car-lovers and efficient transport. Though this will always be true to a certain extent, the reality for Germany’s big-city commuters has become somewhat distorted in this regard.

Berlin, in particular, has seen a surge in petrol prices and declining rail service in recent years, forcing many workers to seek an alternative.

Increasing climate change worries and the desire for exercise have also contributed to this need for change. For many, the answer is simple: cycling.

Cycling – the friendly, healthy commute

Traffic jams, crowded streets, delays in bus and rail transport, and poor travel connections have proven to be a daily source of frustration for many German commuters. Even short journeys can consume a big chunk of the day, resulting in a lack of time and dangerous levels of stress. A well known 2012 study by the Techniker Krankenkasse came to the simple conclusion that public transport and motor commuters are more vulnerable to developing mental illnesses.

The German government has been making an effort in recent years to tackle this issue by promoting the use of bikes and e-bikes. In 2017, funding for cycle paths increased from 60 million to 100 million euros a year. Berlin now boasts 620km of bike paths, 150km of which are exclusive for cyclists. There is also an increasing number of bicycle streets (Fahrradstraßen), where bikes have priority over vehicles.

This, alongside other efforts to promote cycling nationally, has resulted in a significant rise in people who bike to work. Now, it’s estimated that two million Germans use a bicycle for their daily commute, though this number could be far higher.

The societal benefits of biking to and from work are extensive. Perhaps the most crucial advantage of bikes is that they are very environmentally friendly – cycling produces zero emissions.

They also contribute to a lowering of noise pollution in cities, something that is almost certainly appreciated by residents of busier areas. Bikes take up very little space, relieving congestion and increasing traffic flow. For these reasons, cities with high bike usage are considered more vibrant and liveable.

Then there are the personal health benefits. Cycle commuting involves regular exercise that will improve your fitness in a way that’s not overly intense. It’s a great way to stay in shape since cycling burns a moderate amount of calories.

The simple act of exercise also releases endorphins, meaning you’re more likely to turn up to work with a smile. As well as a bunch of other physical health benefits, cycling does wonders for your mental health – it’s a great way to de-stress and maintain a healthy mind.

Cycling laws in Germany

With the fun and freedom of cycling comes a certain level of responsibility. You are, technically, a part of regular road traffic, and are thus subject to the general traffic laws. Cyclists are liable for any accidents or damages they may cause, so it’s essential to be aware of the rules for the best chance of avoiding fines and, of course, injuries.

  • Bicycles must be on the street riding in the direction of the traffic. If there is a bicycle path available, you must use that instead.
  • You can carry only the number of people that the bicycle is designed to carry – no more than one person per seat.
  • Children up to eight must ride on the sidewalk and not in traffic.
  • You must ride in single file – side-by-side riding is forbidden on streets and roads.
  • You must give a hand signal to indicate a turn – left arm pointing left for left turns, right arm pointing right for right turns. To signal to stop, extend one arm with the forearm pointing down.
  • You must yield to all traffic if coming from a sidewalk, driveway, or parking lot.
  • You must always give the right of way to pedestrians.
  • No-hands riding is forbidden.
  • Drink driving laws also apply to bicycles.
  • Cell phone use is prohibited when riding a bike unless you have hands free.
  • Earphones are not allowed.

There are also some strict rules when it comes to equipment. Your bicycle must be equipped with the following:

  • Two independently acting brakes.
  • A bell or horn for giving audible warnings.
  • A non-blinking front headlamp (white or pale yellow) and red rear tail light.
  • A white reflector on the front, a red reflector in the rear, and two yellow reflectors on each wheel.
  • Helmets are not mandatory but STRONGLY recommended.

Public transport

If cycling isn’t for you, then fear not. Germany has extensive systems of public transportation which, generally speaking, are cheap, practical, and easy to use. We will go through the different types of public transport available and how to buy tickets.


The S-Bahn

S-Bahn is an abbreviation of ‘Stadtschnellbahn‘, which means ‘city rapid rail’. Berlin was the first city to introduce this electrified rail system back in 1924, and it is now used in many cities across Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

In Berlin, the S-Bahn has 15 lines, covering 330km. This network runs mostly above ground, but some of the stations also connect with the U-Bahn network. During peak times, S-Bahn trains run every 10 minutes, and every 20 minutes at other times. A round green sign with a white S means an S-Bahn station.


The U-Bahn

U-Bahn is short for ‘Untergrundbahn‘, which is known in English as the Underground, Metro, Subway, or Tube. The U-Bahn was introduced to Germany in 1902 in Berlin. The system is now used in cities across Germany.

The Berlin U-Bahn is Germany’s largest. It has 10 lines, covering 151.7km, stopping at 173 stations. Though most of the network runs underground, U-Bahn trains can be seen above-ground in certain places. The U-Bahn is undoubtedly one of the speedier ways of getting around Berlin, with trains running every 5-10 minutes during peak times. A blue sign with a white U means a U-Bahn station.


Buses and trams

Bus services have been operating in Berlin since 1846, making it the oldest transportation service in the city. Today, the Berlin tram and bus fleet consists of 1300 vehicles, running on 329 lines, covering 300,000km a day.

Regular buses make up the majority of the network, and they run every 20-30 minutes. The MetroTram lines, which are indicated by an M, run every 10 minutes with a 24-hour service. There are also ExpressBus routes, running on 13 lines, which are mainly used to reach airports or to link suburbs with the city center. A round sign with a green H in a yellow circle means a regular tram or bus stop.


How to buy tickets

Ticket machines are present in train stations and the newer trams. They offer instructions in several languages and are pretty straightforward.

You could use both coins and notes, as well as credit cards and some debit cards.

The bigger stations contain ticket offices that operate during normal working hours, from which tickets can be purchased with credit cards as well as cash.

On buses and trams, tickets can be purchased from the driver or from ticket machines in trams. Note that bus drivers and the older tram ticket machines will have limited change, so it’s best if you come prepared with exact cash.


Validating your ticket

In most places, tickets purchased from vendors or machines will need to be validated before use.

Small boxes, which are called ‘Entwerters‘, are located next to ticket machines and on platforms. These will stamp your ticket with a date and time, validating it for use within two hours.

Germany operates an ‘honor system’, whereby you won’t have to feed your ticket to get through any turnstiles to get on any S or U-Bahn train.

However, non-uniformed controllers will occasionally flash their badge and request to see your ticket. If you don’t present a valid ticket, you will be fined on the spot; typically in the amount of €60.


Types of tickets

Tickets purchased are generally valid across all types of public transport. For instance, if you buy a day ticket from a bus driver, it will also be valid for S and U-Bahn trains. Most cities, including Berlin, are split into three zones: A, B, and C. When buying a ticket you must specify the zones in which you want to travel, and your ticket will only be valid within those zones.

The ticket types available are as follows:

  • Single ticket – valid for a single, one-way journey
  • 4 trip-ticket – cheaper than buying four singles, valid for four journeys.
  • Short trip ticket/ 4 short-trip tickets – for traveling no further than three train stations or six tram and bus stops.
  • Day ticket – valid until 3am on the following day, a day ticket offers the best value if you are making three or more trips in one day.
  • 7-Day-Ticket – the best choice for a week of travel.
  • Small group ticket – works like a day ticket, ideal for more than two people traveling, valid for up to five people.

If you’re a regular commuter, then it’s worth considering getting a monthly or annual pass. This will save you a lot of time and money!

There are plenty of options when it comes to commuting in big German cities.

The healthiest, cheapest, and most efficient of these options is, without a doubt, cycling. If it’s within your physical and logistical means, then biking to and from work can be an invaluable lifestyle choice – just grab some insurance and follow the rules to stay safe.

If not, then Germany’s excellent public transportation network will have you covered.

Linked articles