Autobahn System In Germany

The autobahn is not actually speed limit free!

Optimized Supply Chain
Optimized Supply Chain. Getty Images


The Bundesautobahn system (BAB), commonly known as the autobahn, is well known across the world as roads that have no speed limit, but that is not actually the case. Around forty percent of the BAB has no speed limit, while the other sixty percent has a variety of speed limits depending on the area. The autobahns have been around for over eighty years and have allowed German industry to move products across the country and beyond with relative ease.

History of the Bundesautobahn

The popularity of the motor vehicle grew after the First World War and in Germany the first attempts at creating a national highway system was started as early as 1919. Despite the attempts by the government of the Weimar Republic to start a road building process, the construction was slow but by 1929 the first section of the autobahn system, then called the Reichsautobahn, was built between Dusseldorf and Opladen. Three years later the next section of the autobahn system was constructed between Cologne and Bonn.

The fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in December 1932, accelerated the road building program in Germany. The program became a major propaganda campaign for the NSDAP government and over 250,000 Germans were put to work building the new Reichsautobahn system. After three years the first section of the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world was opened between Frankfurt and Darmstadt.

By September 1936, there was approximately 600 kilometers (373 miles) of completed autobahn. Construction continued as Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and invaded Poland in 1939. Autobahn construction also moved to Austria as the first autobahn outside of Germany was started in 1938 from Salzburg to Vienna.

By the end of 1940 the total length of German autobahn was 3736 kilometers (2321 miles).

Even after the start of the Second World War, the German autobahn program continued as it was seen to be of vital importance to the German military. However was not the case as it was easier to move freight and military supplies by rail. The autobahns were damaged by tanks and caterpillar tracks which decreased the importance of road transport. Towards the end of 1942, fuel shortages, damaged and unfinished roads left autobahn construction at a standstill.

The autobahn may not have given Germany an advantage, as they had hoped, but it did allow the heavily motorized Allied armies to quickly pursue the retreating German forces. The Allied troops had the added advantage of using the autobahns to keep supply vehicles close to the front-line troops and accelerate the end of the war.

US military leaders, including future president Dwight Eisenhower, examined the autobahn system and found that it did not include populated areas. Eisenhower used this information when he launched the Interstate Highway System in 1956.

As the post-war reconstruction program began in the new West Germany, repairs to the autobahns was quickly completed.

In the soviet controlled East Germany the autobahn system was not repaired or maintained. Subsequently the roads were only used by military traffic or state farms. It was not until the 1970’s when the East German autobahns were repaired with funds from the West German government.

Construction of new autobahn projects continued in West Germany until reunification of Germany in 1990. At that time the autobahn system in West Germany had reached 8,822 kilometers (5,482 miles). After the reunification, autobahns between the two nations were completed and within five years the autobahn system had reached 11,143 kilometers (6,924 miles).

After Unification

The unified Germany benefited from the newly expanded Bundesautobahn. By 2010 the total system had 12,813 kilometers (7,962 miles) which is only a thirteen percent increase over the figures for 1995, but after unification the funds from the German Unity Transport Projects have been to upgrade neglected autobahns in the old East Germany, rather than constructing new roads.

Safety on the Autobahn

Safety on the BAB has been a concern for German citizens and in 1970 there were a record number of road accident fatalities, over 21,000. Since then there has been increase in safety features of the autobahns as well as more stringent enforcement of driving laws and increases in vehicle safety.

By 2008 there were fewer than 4,500 road accident fatalities despite a three-fold increase in the number of cars on German roads. Despite this significant decrease, the government has indicated that they would consider imposing speed limits across all autobahns to further reduce road accident fatalities.

Updated by Gary Marion, Logistics and Supply Chain Expert.