The question of (our) time

The field of mobility is governed by opposite priorities and concepts: On the one hand, the old credo that our civic liberties should include the right to unrestricted road use; on the other, the new ambition to reclaim urban space and transform it into a livable green ecosystem. The truth is to be found somewhere in between, for sure. But where exactly?

From today’s perspective, the world of mobility of the economic boom years after WWII looks wonderfully simple: At that time, an international leitmotif was the ‘car-friendly city’ – a concept for which the book of the German architect and urban planner Hans Bernhard Reichow provided clear and simple policy recommendations, which boil down to a somewhat provocative maxim: All power to the car! In concrete terms this meant that all urban planning measures were to cater to the free flow of automobile traffic, even if this involved substantial encroachments on existing urban building structures.

 

Serious doubts regarding this largely one-dimensional view emerged only following the publication in 1963 of the so-called Buchanan report “Traffic in towns“, which distinguished between necessary and optional car use. The British authors of the study advocated measures that would systematically restrain those optional journeys, the extreme increase of which they saw as one of the main causes for the traffic problems that were widespread already at that time – and growing. Moreover, the report was ahead of its time in proposing specific recommendations for context-dependent capacity restrictions and speed limits as well as drastic traffic restrictions in areas that were considered especially worthy of protection.

From car-friendly city to city-friendly traffic

The subsequent years saw the gradual emergence of what is basically the opposite idea to the car-friendly city: the concept of city-friendly traffic. However, several decades passed before the new school of thought actually was on a par with the old faction. The great extent to which auto-mobility had become a symbol of personal freedom, especially in the industrialized countries, became particularly visible during the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and 1974. In the US, for instance, there were incidents where drivers waiting in line at petrol stations shot or stabbed each other to death. And in Germany, a series of four car-free Sundays and a six-month period of generalized speed limits gave birth to the slogan that was later to become the rallying cry, so to speak, of a very vocal civil movement fighting for their automobile rights: “Free roads for free citizens!”

 

Fortunately, our mobile society has made one or the other step forward. Since the start of the 21 century at the latest, hardly anybody still thinks that yesterday’s recipes could solve the problems of today and tomorrow. Such a belief has been defeated by the sheer magnitude, urgency and variety of today’s challenges. Experts expect, for instance, that 90 percent of future population growth will happen in cities, especially as, since 2008, the number of people living in urban areas worldwide surpasses the number living in rural areas. And higher population density obviously leads to more concentrated traffic flows with the corresponding negative impacts. A decline in the quality of life is only one aspect of the problem. Much easier to quantify in euros and cents is another effect: Extrapolations show that in Germany alone, there is an average of 1,000 tailbacks every day, causing an overall economic loss of roughly €100 billion per year. 

Many evolutionary steps – and one true revolution

Even more alarming, however, are the scenarios relative to the impact of climate change. While among conspiracy theorists, the causes and effects of climate change may still be contested, they have largely ceased to be controversial among leading scientists. The latter widely agree that the consequences for our planet will be disastrous if we do not succeed in drastically reducing the amount of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Against this alarming background, the importance of environmental thinking has risen strongly over the past years also in the area of mobility, which by the way accounts for more than a quarter of global energy consumption. A ‘nice-to-have” approach has long since turned into an absolute necessity.

But no matter how far-reaching the developments that urbanization and climate change have already triggered or will sooner or later call for… most changes are still of the evolutionary kind. One true revolution is already in the making, however: Automated and connected driving will probably cause a more radical transformation of personal mobility than any other development since the invention of the automobile more than 130 years ago. The way in which we are moving about on our streets is in for a profound change - and with it the layout and appearance of our cities in their efforts to adapt to the mobility habits of the next generation.

 

An important point is that more people will be mobile: Just think of all those who, today, are not able or allowed to take the wheel themselves because they are too young, too old, or temporarily unfit to drive. To protect our cities from a potential flood of autonomous taxis, we need innovative public mass transit services that are efficient and convenient enough to compete with the new mobility modes.  

Unconditional support for holistic solutions

Among the new parameters facing today’s traffic planners, futurologist Matthias Horx counts also certain deep-reaching changes in the motives that are behind our need to be mobile. “Over the course of human history, our reasons to move about have repeatedly changed in important ways. In the beginning we were all nomads, but later mobility became the privilege of aristocrats as well as an attribute of traveling craftsmen and tradespeople. With the onset of the industrial age, mobility was mainly an opportunity to gain personal or professional advantages. And in our present ‘knowledge society’ we are faced with a complex intertwined set of motives that is currently rearranging itself once again. Hence it is a mistake to believe that our desire to be mobile could always be met in the same old ways.”

 

The interaction of several mega-trends requires not only the integration of the different transport systems, but also close cooperation between the main players who are shaping these systems. Only if municipal authorities, mobility providers, car manufacturers and infrastructure specialists keep working together, they will arrive at solutions that turn challenges into chances. In an interview given the ITS Magazine in early 2011, Dr. Martin Zimmermann, then Head of Strategy for Daimler AG, unconditionally supported the development of holistic solutions: “To state one thing clearly: We welcome the trend towards intermodality, and we support it wherever we can. A challenge as huge as ensuring sustained urban mobility can only be properly mastered in the long term through close cooperation.”

High time to define new answers to new questions

But what does all this mean, in concrete terms, for the position that our mobile society is going to take in the wide field between the opposite poles, i.e. the old credo that our civic liberties should include the right to unrestricted road use, and the new ambition to reclaim urban space and transform it into a livable green ecosystem? The truth is to be found somewhere in between, for sure. Whoever wants to learn more must listen to those who really have something to say about the matter, including some skeptical voices like that of Professor Dr. Christoph Bernhardt of the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, who arrived at a sobering conclusion in an essay recently published in the Studies in Contemporary History journal: “The car-friendly city is an un-dead concept – interred long ago as an urban planning model, but still very present in real-life society.” 

 

We, as the road traffic experts of Siemens ITS, are getting a different picture. In our experience, many top-level players have long since understood that it is high time to define new answers to new questions. In this special edition, four of these thought-leaders are setting forth their position:

  • Henrik Falk, CEO of HOCHBAHN AG in Hamburg
  • Oliver Schmerold, CEO of the Austrian motoring club ÖAMTC
  • Professor Dr. Achim Kampker, CEO of StreetScooter GmbH, an affiliated company of Deutsche Post DHL Group
  • Olivier Reppert, CEO of car2go

We wish you an inspiring read and hope that you will let us know about your views on the matter. Just send us an e-mail to magazine@siemens.com.

2019-04-09

Peter Rosenberger, a journalist in Bodman-Ludwigshafen

Picture credits: istock/mirjanajovic, iStock/querbeet

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