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Autobahn Turns 75

Article based on news reports (tip)August 6, 2007

The enormous German highway network began its life 75 years ago on Monday.

A look from above at the first German highway.
The first autobahn connected Cologne and BonnImage: PA/dpa

The first 20-kilometer (12.43-mile) stretch of highway between Cologne and Bonn was released to the public with a rally, ringing in the golden era of Germany's Autobahn.

A highway at night.
Germany has managed to build 7,705 miles of highways throughout the countryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The highway was constructed for a possible driving speed of 120 kilometers per hour (74.56 miles per hour), although the cars back then averaged only 60 kilometers per hour.

"This is what the future of streets looks like," said Cologne Mayor Konrad Adenauer when he opened the highway for traffic on Aug. 6, 1932.

The highway was officially called the "automobile street" and there were no middle lanes. It had two lanes going in each direction and there were no crossroads.

It opened six months before the takeover of the Nazis, who -- through propaganda -- spread the belief that Hitler invented the highway.

Private predecessor

The Autobahn's roots actually went back even a little further. The first highway-like street, the so-called "Avus" in Berlin, opened in 1921 as an experimental motor racing circuit, financed privately. It was mostly used as a race- and testing track. Driving on the Cologne highway, on the other hand, was open for any automobile, free of charge.

In 1927, a plan was put up for the construction of a 22,000-kilometer (13,670-mile) highway network throughout Germany. The idea was filed, due to the 1929 New York market crash and the economic crisis that followed.

Rising traffic

A traffic jam.
The enormous highway-network has not managed to solve the issue of traffic jams yetImage: Bilderbox

This, however, did not change the fact that traffic issues kept rising: Between 1920 and 1925, the number of cars in the German Reich rose from 75,000 to 256,000 -- an increase the previous street network could not deal with.

The construction of the crossroad-free, four-lane highway between Cologne and Bonn continued. With 18,000 cars a day, this street along the Rhine river was one of the busiest streets in the whole German Reich. In comparison, the front runner today is the highway A100 in Berlin, with more than 165,000 cars a day.

The constructions on the Cologne-Bonn highway began in 1929. The project also served as a program for provision of employment for the many unemployed in the region. At the peak of construction, more than 125,000 men worked on building the highway.

Cars only

Specific laws were applied to the novel street: The new highway was only meant for automobiles, reported the Kölnische Zeitung newspaper on Aug. 5, 1932.

"Due to a specific police order, every other traffic, such as pedestrians, carts, bicyclists, motorcyclists and horse carriage, is prohibited to drive on the street," it wrote.

Adenauer's pride

A busy highway full of cars, trucks and trailers.
The highway traffic is busier during weekends and holidaysImage: AP

Cologne's mayor, who later became Germany's first postwar chancellor, appeared happy that the construction of the first highway was connected to his Cologne.

"We can be proud and pleased by the fact that this new traffic technology begins in Cologne," Adenauer wrote in Kölnische Zeitung.

Germany's highway system has since become a network that spans some 12,400 kilometers. The Cologne-Bonn stretch is still part of it: It was named A555 in 1955 and expanded to six lanes 10 years later.