European roads comparison

Last updated 4-9-05



The need for European road numbers is often questioned. Most people say they never use them, and since they are properly indicated on signs only in a few countries, they might as well be abandoned completely.

An obvious criterion to judge the quality of a road numbering system is how many different road numbers are needed on highly frequented routes.

It is clear that it might be expected that fewer E numbers are needed than national numbers, if only because national numbers almost always change at international borders. However, it is often said that E numbers follow very illogical routes, like the E25 Rotterdam - Utrecht - Eindhoven, or the E19, which links Amsterdam and Bruxelles but als Rotterdam, and a direct route via Utrecht is shorter. Because the E55 goes through the Czech Republic where there are not that many motorways yet, one would not folow it e.g. from Berlin to Venezia. It seems that such effects are exceptions. Also, the German A3 is covered by six E numbers, some of which have very strange detours (E41) or small sections which are added just to complete the system (E43) which make the E numbers seem ridiculous. The reason for this situation is that E numbers form a north-south / east-west grid, and the A3 just happens to be a diagonal road. One might say that this is the problem in the first place: most roads in Europe just do not run either north-south or east-west, and the grid system simply does not fit. When using both E and national numbers whenever they are convenient, this is no problem.


Budapest 1987: New E numbers on a separate sign, the main sign still contains an old E number

Remark: no exonyms are used in this document.

The rules

The table below contains the routes between 10 European capitals described in three ways:

In this case, national numbers are used if there is no difference in the number of road numbers used.

The average number of different numbers per class is computed and compared.

Old E numbers are included to see whether the more systematic numbering plan of the new system is disadvantageous in practice because standard main routes need more numbrs (which is often alleged).

The number of border crossings one passes on each route is added to identify the component in the reduction due to the fact that E number do not change at borders, see also National routes.

The following rules are applied:

Result table


Obviously, some routes might be questioned, e.g. Bruxelles - Aachen, on the route to Wien or Praha, is roughly the same distance via E40 or E40 and E314.

Also, between Warszawa and Wien, a route via DK52 - DK69 - 12 - D3 (which is not an E road) instead of DK1 - 48 - 11 might be better.

In most cases, this makes hardly any difference.

Adding Budapest might change the score in favour of E numbers: coming from the west, passing Wien, one just follows the E60 passing national numbers A1, A21, A2, A23 and A4. A2 and A23 will be replaced by the S1 within a few years.

The completion of the German A6 (E50) in 2008 will be in favour of national numbers: on 5 routes, two less numbers will be needed.

Should routes be adjusted to the network of around 1975 to judge old E numbers better? One might argue that it is unfair to transfer the old numbers to the new system and count many extra numbers where the old roads do not follow new main corridors.

On the other hand, one reason for introducing a new European road numbering system was presumably that the old system was no longer in line with the modern road network, so it is not surprising that the old routes are sometimes not optimal.

Even in the 1970's, the best route Luxembourg - Giessen was via de A48, which did not have an E number.

However, it may be assumed that if the old E numbering system would have been maintained, some numbers would have been rerouted anyway.

Three-digit E numbers

Not many 3-digit E numbers are used in this table. Very often, 3-digit numbers are just part of a national road (or even exactly the same). Examples used here are

In the best case, a 3-digit E number covers 3 different national roads (E314 follows B A2, NL A76 and D A4). Therefore one might argue that 3-digit numbers should be abolished, since they mostly have administrative importance.

It is also somewhat strange that some roads with obvious international importance do not have E numbers (the A1 Zürich - Bern and the German A93). Apparently Switzerland chose not to define 3-digit E numbers for such connections as the A1 Bern - Zürich.

If E numbers would always be signposted, it could be convenient for long distance travellers to exclusively use E numbers. Most maps of Europe only show E numbers.

Why are road numbers so impopular?

In theory, the main advantage of road numbers is that it is always clear which road number is indicated, while any number of towns might or might not appear on signs. In addition, signs can have less information.

Examples of 'unexpected' destinations indicated on signs:

Germany, A46 to Heinsberg: even when the road was only built to Hückelhoven, signs near Mönchengladbach indicated only Heinsberg, while Erkelenz and Hückelhoven would have been far more obvious. The reason was that the road was meant to continue to Heinsberg, but this was not obvious to everyone.

Germany, A23 to Itzehoe: on the A7 at Dreieck Hamburg-Nordwest, only Husum and Heide appear on signs. Again, the A23 was planned to continue to Husum, and now ends at Heide. However, Itzehoe, Elmshorn and Pinneberg are all bigger than Husum and Heide and much closer, so that it would be more obvious to expect these cities on the signs.

(NB Husum and Heide are probably more interesting for tourism.)

Belgium: on the E42 at Battice, coming from Verviers, Paris is indicated but Bruxelles is not.

In practice, since road numbers are often poorly signposted, this advantage is reduced.

In Belgium, only E numbers are indicated in such a way that they can be followed, but only on motorways. On other roads they are not indicated at all.

In Germany, it is roughly the other way round: E numbers are sometimes fully signposted only on non-motorways. On motorways, only reassurance signs with distances show E numbers.

In France, the indication of E numbers even depends on the department: there is not a signle sign showing the E512 in Haut-Rhin, while it is indicated on some signs in Vosges.

Most people find it much easier to remember names than numbers. If we assume for example that the average person can remember 5 names more easily than one number, it is of course easier to remember a set of towns which will probably appear on signs than a set of road numbers. In addition, two factors will make people use names rather than numbers (in Europe):

For example, in Luxembourg, one will encounter signs without any numbers at all, with only national numbers, with only E numbers or with both. Therefore, to find the way in Luxembourg, one would need to know both classes of numbers, and for most people it is easier to just use town names.

National routes

One might argue that E numbers are useful only on (long) international routes, and the number of different numbers on such routes is lower only because they do not change at borders, and since most journeys are within countries, the advantage is negligible.

To identify to what extent the advantage of E numbers lies in the continuation at borders, the number of border crossings on the given routes is added to the number of (new) E numbers. This way the difference is roughly cut in half, see conclusions below.

A comparison between European and national numbers for some routes between major cities within four countries is given in the tables below.

The Netherlands



Routes between 11 major cities in the Netherlands:


Utrecht - Groningen is shorter via A27 - A6 - A7 than via A28

The average number of different E numbers is 2.05 (total 55 routes), for national numbers it is 2.35. Thus there is only a small difference.



1 Berlin - Bremen via A2 - A7 - A27 slightly shorter than via A24 - A1

2 Köln - Frankfurt via A66

One needs a few more E numbers than national numbers (2.4 %).

If the A4 would continue between Köln and Dresden, and the E41 would be changed as indicated below, the number of national numbers would be reduced by 12, and the number of E numbers by 3, and the number of extra E numbers would increase to 8.5 %.

Still, this is not a very significant difference.


The numbering system seems to be particularly good in Belgium, with a reduction of more than 30 %.

This is mainly due to the fact that the E19 and the E40 continue along the R0 in Bruxelles, thus one saves two numbers when following either of these roads passing Bruxelles. Also, the E42 is routed via A8, A16, A7 and A15 (and further to the east via A3 and A27, but these are not needed for routes between the given cities).



1 Assume the A89 is complete between Libourne and Balbigny (N82)

2 Bordeaux/Clermont-Ferrand - Dijon/Strasbourg via N89-D89-D81-D101-(N89)-N7-D73-N6

3 Strasbourg - Toulouse via A35-N422-N83-A36-A39-A40-A42-A46-N346-(A46)-A7-A9-A61

4 Rouen - Clermont-Ferrand/Toulouse via A12-N286-A86-N118-A10

In France, the difference is also significant, though slightly less than in Belgium.

This is due partly to the relatively large number of gaps in motorways:

Also, sometimes there is no direct motorway and no clear optimal route (notes 2 and 4 above).


Some specific routes

A number of E routes are illogical in the sense that there is a shorter route which has at least the same standard.

Some examples in detail:

Another example of a detour is the E75 between Zilina and Budapest which is about 390 km, while the direct route via Zvolen is about one third shorter (260 km), but it only has small sections of motorway or motorway-like road while the E75 is almost entirely with motorway standard.

The only really strange route in the Netherlands is the E25.

The problem with the E41 could be solved by giving it the number originally assigned, namely E39, on the A45. It is no problem that there is another E39 in Norway (cf. e.g. E01).

The E42 could then be continued to Würzburg (Kreuz Biebelried), thus eliminating two E numbers on the A3. Also, the E41 could be continued to Erfurt via A7, A70 and A73. This would either eliminate only one E number on the A3, or create a useless multiplex E41 E42 on the A3 between Würzburg-West and Biebelried. The E41 would then cross the E45, which in principle violates the grid system, but such situations exist elsewhere as well (E35/E37 at Leverkusen, E42/E44 at Wittlich, E49/E51).

A city with the importance of Genève which is not near a first class E road is indeed hard to find. Therefore the E25 could be continued to Marseille via the A41 and A51, rather than replacing the E27 by the E25, which would also eliminate the strange route.

Two extreme examples: the E40 and E44

In Germany, there are two E roads which replace a very large number of national routes.

The E40 between Köln and Dresden is an important east-west axis, and because the A4 between Olpe and Bad Hersfeld was never built, and probably will not be built within 30 years, one has to follow the A45, B49, B429 (eastbound traffic is guided via the A485 instead), A480, A5 and A7 between the two sections of A4.

One could renumber this route to A4 and the southern section of the A45 to A69.

The entire E44, which is about 800 km long, follows the following 20 routes:

France A29, A26, D1, N29, N43 (two sections), A203, N18, N52

Belgium N830

Luxembourg N31, N5, A6, A1

Germany A64, B52, A602, A1, A48, A3, B49

Seven of these are motorways, eight are other roads. This example shows that E numbers are expecially useful for routes which only partly follow motorways. Of course, few motorists will follow this entire route, and between Sedan and Luxembourg it is faster to follow the Belgian N89 and A4, but for example between Luxembourg and Koblenz it is useful to have just one number.


On the 45 routes examined, the average number of different road numbers is as follows:

Far less E numbers than national numbers are needed, as could be expected.

The difference is caused in part by motorways which are not completed yet, e.g. on the E50.

Remarkably, even the route from Amsterdam to Wien, which follows the entire German A3, which is covered by 6 different E numbers, only has two less national numbers than E numbers, since the E numbers 'catch up' on the sections outside Germany.

Old E numbers seem better than the new system: only because there is no old E road between Giessen and Luxembourg, many extra national numbers must be used on the routes Berlin - Luxembourg and Luxembourg - Warszawa. Using the E44 here would reduce the average to 3.178, making it even better than using both new E numbers and national numbers.

The clearest advantage is on the route Bruxelles - Wien, which is just the old E5 instead of 8 new numbers. On the other hand, Amsterdam - Roma is just the E35, while 6 old numbers cover this route.

Clearly, a major decrease in the number of different road numbers needed is achieved by just using any road number class where convenient. This is due mostly to the so often scorned fact that E numbers follow a completely different pattern than national numbers. The most obvious example is the German A3. The route from Amsterdam to Praha is covered by 7 E numbers and 7 national numbers, but by using E numbers near Amsterdam and Praha and the A3 in between, one needs only 3 different numbers. The same holds for the route Bruxelles - Praha.

The question is whether the reduction in numbers needed on long-distance routes justifies the 'overload' of information created when signposting both European and national numbers as in Switzerland.

About half the advantage of E numbers lies in the fact that E numbers do not change at borders: adding these to the number of E numbers, the reduction compared to national numbers is only 27.1 % instead of 53.6 %.

NB Alternatively, one could subtract the number of border crossings from the national numbers.

For routes within one country, the average reduction when using E numbers instead of national routes for a number of routes in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France is 18.9 %.

In Belgium and France it is about 30 %, which is in line with the number obtained when adding the number of border crossings.

Only in Germany, slightly less national numbers than E numbers are needed. In the Netherlands there is little difference.

The problem of having many different national numbers, especially when motorways are interrupted, is overcome in part by indirect references. For example, the A30 has a gap in Bad Oeynhausen, where one has to follow the B61 (and a very short section of B514, omitted in the table above), but there are indirect references to the motorways A2 (eastbound) and A30 (westbound).

A disadvantage of E numbers is that the number of digits tends to be higher than for national numbers on the same route. This holds in particular for motorways. Often 1-digit motorway numbers correspond to 2-digit E numbers and 2-digit national numbers to 3-digit E numbers. For lower class roads, this difference is smaller.

In due course, signs might disappear alltogether, since all cars will have navigation equipment. However, currently (2005) only 6 percent of all cars in Europe have a navigation system, and it will certainly take decades until signs can be removed completely. Also, signs remain useful in case of technical problems with navigation equipment.

More realistically, signs may in future be reduced to the bare minimum, with just road numbers and some destinations indicated.

Some related subjects:


TOTSO stands for Turn Off To Stay On: here a road number continues via a slip road which is reached by turning off. It is often argued that E numbers have 'strange routes' because they have more TOTSO's than national route numbers.

The following table compares TOTSO's on A and E numbers with roughly comparable length in Germany and Switzerland. Since E numbers which are in part not motorways tend to have many more TOTSO's than motorways, only motorways (and motorway-like roads) are considered.

E numbers have more TOTSO's, but that is in fact their advantage: for example, from Karlsruhe to Salzburg, one has only one E number while the A8 is interrupted by the A99 München ring road.

Examples of routes:


The following table shows the smallest number of destinations one needs to know to find the way on some routes without knowing any road numbers.

The idea is to follow the first control city until the next one appears on a sign, then to follow the next one etc.

When the city in question is not indicated at some location, it must be possible to assume that one may simply continue to follow the road straight on: in Germany and Switzerland, for example, signs for the direction straight on only show the name of the next exit.

The number of towns needed has the same order of magnitude as the number of road numbers, but as observed before, it is not clear to everyone which towns are signposted.


List of E roads

Marcel Monterie