First German Autobahn Opened 80 Years Ago, Connecting Cologne and Bonn
A 555 links Cologne and Bonn – an unusual road even today
Enlarge image The A555, the first autobahn turns 80 (© picture alliance / dpa) There are no service areas by the side of the road, no speed cameras, and for Cologne standards, hardly any traffic jams: the oldest autobahn in Germany is still a curiosity today. Eighty years ago, on August 6, 1932, Konrad Adenauer opened the road that is today the A 555 autobahn. At that time Adenauer – who in 1949 became the first Federal Chancellor – was the mayor of Cologne and Adolf Hitler had not yet seized power. It is not the case, as many falsely believe today, that the dictator invented the autobahn.
The autobahn originally had two lanes in each direction. There was no median barrier; only a simple white stripe separating the two directions. The consequence was reckless passing maneuvers into oncoming traffic. There were countless accidents and deaths before a median barrier was later installed.
“This is how the streets of the future will look,” announced Adenauer at the opening ceremony. Traffic had already grown rapidly. According to the Cologne traffic researcher Ulrich Soénius, the number of registered vehicles grew by 300 percent between 1924 and 1928. The route from Cologne to Bonn was especially popular, since tourists and day trippers could drive from Bonnto the Eifel or Siebengebirge mountain ranges. Up to 1,800 cars per hour traversed the existing minor road; it quickly became overburdened. Enlarge image Konrad Adenauer as Mayor of Cologne in 1932. Konrad Adenauer opened the road, that is today, the A 555 autobahn. (© picture-alliance / akg-images) A “four-lane road, free of crossings” needed to be built. The work began in 1929 and around 5,500 unemployed workers were involved in the construction. Three years later the route was ready. Not everyone could afford a car. Carriages, agricultural equipment and bicycles were expressly banned from the “automobile-only road.” Motorbikes were also forbidden at first.
The speed limit was 120 kilometers per hour. At that time, however, no regular car could drive that fast. When Bonn became the capital of West Germany, the route acquired the nickname “the diplomats’ racetrack.” Many authorities had their headquarters in Cologne instead of Bonn, so officials would drive back and forth between the two. In the 1960s an extra lane was added.
Today the citizens of Cologne and Bonn have taken the autobahn into their hearts. Because the A 555 connects to no other large cities, it has no importance beyond the two cities. The route has significantly less traffic than other autobahns, and traffic jams are rare.
Fast Facts: Autobahns in Germany
- In Germany there are around 12,845 kilometers (7,982 miles) of Bundesautobahnen, federal highways, and around 39,700 kilometers (24,668 miles) of the more minor highways called Bundesstraßen. Germany has one of the most dense long-distance road networks in Europe.
- The autobahns make up only 6 percent of the total road network, yet more than 30 percent of all road journeys take place on the autobahns.
- From 2001 to 2011, around five billion euros were invested in autobahns.
- After German unification in 1990, the autobahn network was expanded by 2,292 kilometers (1,424 miles) to a total length of 12,845 kilometers (7,982 miles); the length of autobahns with six or more lanes more than tripled; 42 percent of these construction projects were carried out in the five German states that previously were part of East Germany.
- In 2011, 452 people died in accidents on autobahns. That was 5.3 percent more than in the previous year. In total, around 4,009 people in total died in traffic accidents in 2011. In 1991, 1,552 people died on autobahns and 11,300 people in total died in traffic accidents.
- There is no standard speed limit on German autobahns.
(Sources: Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development; the Federal Statistical Office; the Federal Highway Research Institute)