The size and age of an average car is one of the biggest differences between Denmark and Germany. Cars in Denmark are very expensive: the newer, the more expensive and the heavier, the more expensive. As a result, many Danes drive around in small, rusty and functional cars. The average German car is fast, smooth, oil-consuming, spotless, scratchless and heavy ? with the exception of exceptions. Fortunately for the environment, many young Germans practice car pooling. And it wouldn`t be Germany if that happened in an unstructured way.
While Lithuanians, Poles and Czechs are happy to travel `by the thumb` even for everyday return trips, the Germans prepare their car pooling experience through websites like `Drive-along-opportunity` (Mitfahrgelegenheit) or `Drive-along Centre` (Mitfahrzentrale). The idea is simple: a car owner who intends to make a trip from A to B will post his trip on one of the two websites, so that others can apply for the empty seats. Depending on the service, seat applicants call straight to the car owner or through a premium number. Time, cost and collection point are arranged, and, if all goes well, car owner and seat applicant(s) will undertake the trip together.
`Carpooling is an easy way to save money on my travels`
Unlike some other initiatives like CouchSurfing, the intentions of car pooling are not of the social kind. Both car owners and seat applicants use it as a way to save money. Some car owners may even use it as an alternative taxi service and earn some pocket money or subsidise their expensive cars. During the trip, any conversation or social interaction is purely trivial, and nothing to be counted on.
Intending to save some money, I am using the Mitfahrgelegenheit today to cover the roughly 300 kilometres between Hamburg and G?ttingen. Driver of the day is Fabian (25, photo), co-passengers Daniela (24) and Hussein (23).
As agreed during a quick phone call one day in advance, I meet Fabian at a car park in downtown Hamburg. Hussein joins us 5 minutes later. Together, we collect Daniela at Hamburg Central Station before heading South. Fabian explains me that he uses Mitfahrgelegenheit to make his own trips cheaper. `I am now going to visit my parents in the Harz area. It doesn`t make sense to be alone in a car with four empty seats. Mitfahrgelegenheit is an easy way to fill them up. Both the drivers and the passengers are usually young people, often students.`
`I decide on the rate of the trip by looking at how much the alternatives cost. The cheapest train ticket from Hamburg to G?ttingen would cost 19 euros, so I charge a little less: 15. There is no other way to cover the distance cheaper than that, except by walking or cycling`, Fabian says. Wondering about the safety of the system, I ask Fabian if he ever had any bad experiences with his passengers: `No, not really. They usually just sit and wait until they get to their destination. They listen to music or fall asleep. Sometimes, they talk. Nobody ever showed up late and it has always been surprisingly easy to find passengers. I use the first come-first serve principle. I`m not looking for a particular kind of passenger, neither is the service built for that.`
Daniela also feels safe using the Mitfahrgelegenheit: `I only use it during the day. I have had some car owners who were driving really fast, up to 280 km/h. I did get scared with that driver whenever other cars unexpectedly showed up in the left lane. One other bad experience was a time when I had arranged the ride, but the person never showed up. It then took me two days to travel from Hamburg to K?ln instead of just one, and I was quite annoyed. My best experience was with a girl who took me to the place where I was going to study the year after. She told me lots about the city and where to go. We have stayed in contact since.`
Hussein is using the service because `the train is too expensive`. `On top of that, there is no need for me to feel afraid. I am a man.`
Upon my arrival in G?ttingen, I am happily surprised by the many cyclists navigating through the city centre. Sabrina (22) tells me that bikes are probably the most suitable means of transportation in student cities like G?ttingen. `Students also have favourable arrangements for travelling. As a student in North Saxony, my student card allows me to travel on regional trains and buses for free, as far north as Hamburg. Unfortunately, it`s not allowed to use high speed trains, so getting to Hamburg for free would take me twice as long as necessary. Still, the arrangements in this region are better than what other regions have to offer. I think that students in Bayern can only use local city buses for free.`
Dirk (26) and his girlfriend recently bought a small car: a Citroen C1. `Most students in Germany do not have a car, simply because they cannot afford it. And also because they don`t really need it most of the time`, he says. `Once they start their first job, a car is often one of the first big investments they make. In our case, two people traveling in one car is almost automatically cheaper than traveling by train. I used Mitfahrgelegenheit a few times during my student time and it was a pleasant and cheap way to get places.`
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