The Mobility Revolution Urban Planners Herald End of Cars in Cities

With bad air, clogged streets and packed trains, Germany's major cities are suffocating on their own attractiveness. Now, thousands of e-scooters are also crowding bike lines. Long known as a car paradise, the country is experiencing a revolution. Is anyone noticing? By DER SPIEGEL Staff

E-scooters at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Christoph Soeder/ DPA

E-scooters at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

By , , Christopher Piltz, , , and


The road to the future of mobility can be bumpy. It can also lead in the wrong direction from time to time.

During a recent test drive, the freshly downloaded app from Tier, an e-scooter rental company, promises that the next electric scooter is 393 meters (1,289 feet) away, parked near Frankfurt's Alte Oper concert house. The only problem is that's north, whereas the destination of the journey, the city's central train station, is to the south.

It takes a minute to locate the scooter, which is somewhat hidden in the entryway of a courtyard, and electronically unlock it. Now comes the bumpy part. This is in part due to the scooter's rigid construction and its small, hard wheels, but it's also because of the lousy quality of the bike path along Frankfurt's Reuterweg street. It's a narrow and rough stretch of concrete pavers that can only be distinguished from the adjacent, pedestrian-only path by their color. Going any faster than the 20 kilometers per hour (12 miles per hour) permitted by German law would be hazardous to everyone's health.

All of the sudden, the GPS-controlled scooter slams on the brakes all by itself, slowing to a walking pace. The cycle path is apparently located too close to a park the scooters are prohibited from driving through. For such instances, a pre-installed governor of 6 kilometers per hour takes over. That may be an appropriate speed for most parks, but when a scooter suddenly comes to a halt on a bike path, it becomes a traffic hazard. A young man on a rental bike angrily rings his bell from behind, steers off the curb and merges onto the street to overtake us, swearing all the while.

The final bill comes to 2.95 euros ($3.29) for 13 minutes of scootering. A short trip on Frankfurt's suburban railway would have cost 1.85 euros and undoubtedly been less risky and less provocative to other riders, drivers and pedestrians. But that train ride would have also been in an underground tunnel, bereft of sunshine and the feeling of warm air in your face as you cruise along. The feeling of taking part in a small revolution of urban mobility also would have been missing.

The Arrival of the E-Scooter

E-scooters gained official approval in Germany in mid-June. They're allowed on bike paths and, when no such paths are available, on the road next to cars. Numerous companies have since distributed thousands of units in large cities, beginning in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and Frankfurt -- with many more to follow.

The conditions were initially favorable -- with comfortable summer temperatures and dry weather, rental companies enjoyed high demand for the electric scooters. The clientele tends to be predominantly the young and the curious. Some are in T-shirts, others wear business shirts. Few wear helmets, which is legal, although not exactly sensible. What's not legal is driving the contraptions on sidewalks or in pedestrian zones.

E-scooters were one of this year's summer hits. Indeed, no look back at the summer of 2019 will be complete without snapshots of hair-raising evasive maneuvers, minor and major collisions and stranded, carelessly parked vehicles. Cities like Paris or Madrid have already seen what these compact and zippy units can do to their streets.

A new mode of transportation has been introduced to our cities, aiming to expedite the traffic that has long since slowed down or ground to a standstill. But this change brings even more congestion -- on roads, on bike paths and in parking spaces. In other words: in public spaces.

Georg Dunkel is a traffic planner in Munich. An engineer by training, numbers are his thing. He knows how many people move around the city, how many cars are on the roads and how many people commute. He also knows that more and more people are moving to this large Bavarian city.

An All-Day Traffic Jam By 2030

Several months ago, Dunkel gave a presentation in which he said that if all road users in the city were to maintain their current habits, there would be no more rush hour by the year 2030, meaning no more "acute congestion peaks" in the morning and early evening. To illustrate this, Dunkel created a graphic. Instead of a spike two times a day, it shows a continuous flat line -- at the upper-most part of the graph. Dunkel estimates that within about a decade, there will be "continuous peak traffic time" with almost 100 percent utilization of road capacity from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. An all-day traffic jam.

Dunkel, 46, is a department head who isn't prone to making ill-considered demands. In his office hang various large-format city maps, while light reflected from a passing tram dances on the walls. A lot has already improved in Munich, he says: There are more bicycle lanes, more parking for residents and the frequency of public transportation has been increased. But major changes are still necessary: "Today's traffic status quo isn't the solution for the future."

Munich residents got a taste of that future in May, on Ascension Day. Traffic in the city was at a near standstill due to the holiday. Dunker's proposed solution? "We have to rethink public space."

This applies not only in Munich, but also in places like Hamburg, Cologne and Frankfurt. Anywhere people live in densely populated areas, traffic planners, urban developers and climate protectors are trying to figure out how the future of mobility should look.

Victims of Their Own Attractiveness

Almost all major German cities will eventually become victims of their own attractiveness. The influx into this country's metropolises continues unabated. Hamburg has been steadily growing since 2012, averaging 25,000 new inhabitants a year. Munich has grown by a quarter of a million people since the turn of the millennium. And those who can't afford the city's atrocious rents come into the city in the morning and leave again in the evening.

From 2011 to 2018, the number of commuters increased by 21 percent in Munich and by a good 23 percent in Frankfurt. Every day, 140,000 people leave Hamburg for work and 340,000 come in. Most of them either pass through the hopelessly packed central train station, which sees half a million passengers a day, or on the city's access roads, where the swarm of cars inches along, each carrying an average of 1.2 people.

Once these commuters reach the city centers, they encounter more people who also prefer to drive themselves to work despite there being a dense network of public transportation. Forty percent of people who live less than 3 kilometers from where they work still drive by car. Once on the road, they compete with delivery traffic that has increased by 30 percent over the past five years thanks to sites like Amazon and Zalando -- and the preferred habitat of these delivery vans is the right-hand lane, parked.

For the longest time, politicians just let things run their course. They watched as the number of cars on the road exploded, shattering previous records (it's currently at 46 million across Germany). They did nothing as consumers started buying more oversized SUVs than compact cars. And they sat idly by as Germany missed its climate targets -- at least until environmental associations and the courts reminded them of European Union requirements for air pollution control.

In response, some cities closed heavily trafficked roads, which has resulted in polluting diesel vehicles now detouring on side streets past those very same roads. Some cities simply thinned out the traffic passing by the pollution measuring stations. But many municipalities seem to be ahead of politicians in Berlin.

Abandoning Fossil Fuels Doesn't Go Far Enough

Traffic planners are developing concepts and plans everywhere to strengthen individual mobility and eliminate the need for car ownership. The German cities of Kiel and Konstanz, for instance, have declared "climate emergencies" to make it easier for them to implement unpopular but necessary measures.

Behind these measures are city administrators who feel spurred and inspired by the generation that will still be living on our planet 60 years from now. It's a generation in Germany that isn't particularly interested in cars and even finds obtaining a driver's license more burdensome than practical. Nevertheless, it is an extremely mobile generation, but just aren't as interested in car ownership.

Thanks to this generation, everyone's talking about a traffic revolution. It's an old term -- 30 years old, in fact -- and it can be somewhat misleading.

For one, where is the revolution headed? Back to the 1950s, when cars were allowed to drive as fast as they wanted in urban areas? To the 1960s, when architects conceptualized "car-friendly cities" with three-lane avenues and lots of parking spaces on both sides of the street?

DER SPIEGEL

Germany doesn't need a traffic revolution so much as it needs a coherent mobility policy that doesn't create false incentives, and also sets priorities and distributes privileges differently. In order to be mobile in the future without shame or regret -- and without traffic jams -- simply forgoing fossil fuels isn't going to be enough.

A team of DER SPIEGEL reporters traveled to Germany's largest cities to investigate where the fight for space is the most intense, where the problem of air pollution is the most urgent, where noise pollution is the loudest and where residents are the most stressed out. The team spoke to researchers, urban planners, logistics experts and local public transportation managers.

Ushering in Radical Change

No matter the city, the goal is roughly the same. The amount of pedestrians, cyclists, e-bike and e-scooter riders, as well as users of local public transportation, should increase to 80 percent while the share of motorized individual traffic should drop to 20 percent. Experts refer to this division in usage share of different types of mobility as "modal share." It's something like a universal recipe for making our cities more livable. Munich's city council has formalized the 80-percent goal and wants to achieve it by 2025. Already today, 62 percent of the city's residents get around without their own car.

Is 80 percent conceivable? Yes. Feasible? Only if people are prepared to change their behavior and make compromises when it comes to the allocation of public space -- and if politicians are willing to design things in a way that supports municipalities both financially and in administratively.

The mobility of the future will be characterized by new means of transport, facilitated by digitalization and people's smartphones. They will be bought less and borrowed more. Services like Share Now are only the beginning -- especially once cars learn to drive everywhere all on their own. The next decade will be one of radical change in the mobility sector not seen since the invention of the railroad.

1. Cars Will Need to Make Room

A city in which pedestrians, cyclists and motorists use space equally is not a utopia. Ask experts to name a model city with modern and sustainable transportation policies, and nearly all of them will point to Copenhagen. Researchers like Stephan Rammler of the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) in Berlin rave about the city's "wide, comfortable and safe bike lanes," which are usually separated from sidewalks and car lanes by kerbstones. They are also enthusiastic about the generous pedestrian zones and the elevated roads for cyclists, who can zip through the city quickly without having to wait at intersections. "It's not magic," says Rammler.

Of course, the Danes' proactive charge began more than 30 years ago. They added more space for cyclists and pedestrians and got rid of space for cars. First, Rammler says, "Copenhagen reduced the number of parking spaces and made them more expensive, then the city re-divided the lanes." They then combined this with a functional, well-coordinated and visually attractive system of public transportation. Nearly half of Copenhagen residents ride their bikes to work.

Getting Rid of Parking

Planners in two other major European cities proceeded in a similar fashion and, today, Zurich and Vienna top international rankings of "most livable cities." In the early 1990s, people in the Austrian capital complained about the lack of parking. But creating new spaces for vehicles to stand immobile in the winding, densely populated city wasn't an option, so Vienna began charging for existing spaces and set up roomy, paid-parking zones. In response, city residents began switching to other means of transport; time spent by people looking for parking spaces, as well as parking time, were reduced. The additional revenues were earmarked for the construction of underground parking garages and the city's bus and train systems.

In Zurich, the municipal council passed its "historic parking compromise" in 1996. Parking spaces along the streets were moved to underground, multistory car parks, the number of parking spaces was capped at 1990 levels and the tram network was expanded. Today, only 25 percent of transport users drive by car.

German transportation experts have been visiting Copenhagen, Vienna and Zurich for years. There's no shortage of intention to follow these cities' models, Rammler says and Munich is ready to get started. The city will elect a new mayor in 2020 and nobody wants to miss out on the green, environmentalist momentum that has gripped the populace. Munich's acting mayor, Dieter Reiter, 61, has also repositioned himself. For the longest time, the politician, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was more on the side of motorists. These days, though, he's fighting for bike paths and a car-free city center. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, is fielding Kristina Frank as its candidate in the election. She's a 38-year-old mother, a former judge and an avid cyclist who shows up for "Bike Talks" on a custom built, four seat campaign bike to speak with constituents about "city-life-balance." For her interview with DER SPIEGEL, Frank turned up on a bike with a child seat. "This is my main means of transport, including to professional appointments," she says. One of her first official acts as a municipal worker was getting rid of two parking spaces in the courtyard of city hall to make room for a two-story bike rack.

The shift from Reiter's SPD and Frank's CSU may seem surprising, considering that it took place in the hometown of BMW, with its 135,000 employees. But cycling in and around Munich enjoys a similar place in Bavarians' hearts as hiking in the nearby hills and mountains. Plus, residents have long realized that they can get from A to B much faster on two wheels. The city council approved plans in July to take space from cars and make it available exclusively for bike lanes on a ring road surrounding the historic city center as well as on other streets following a citizens' petition campaign. The Social Democrats and the Greens also have plans to convert the city's magnificent boulevard, the Leopoldstrasse, into a bike highway.

This new consciousness is taking root all over. Bike paths are being improved or new "bicycle boulevards" are being created, where the maximum speed limit is 30 kilometers per hour and cyclists have priority over car traffic.

But many cities have a lot of catching up to do. Hamburg, for one, is dusting off 20-year-old plans to build 12 new bike paths leading into the city center, arranged in a star shape, by which commuters can reach their destination safely and comfortably. Even the venerable Ballindamm, a tree-lined avenue that leads along the city's Binnenalster lake, is set to get its own bike path: 2.75 meters (9 feet) wide, just as wide as a lane for cars. The goal of Hamburg city administrators is to have 25 percent of all road users be cyclists by 2030. That target, though, won't be achievable with existing bike paths that are often super narrow and pockmarked by tree roots and potholes.

Disproportionately at Risk

The e-bike boom in particular demands smoother, wider paths and more of a buffer between the bikes -- which zoom through cities at 25 kilometers per hour -- and pedestrians. In 2018, 445 cyclists were killed on German roads, a 16-percent increase over the previous year. This rise was particularly significant among e-bike riders, who accounted for a quarter of the 4.2 million bicycles sold in 2018. In the first three months of 2019, 18 e-bicyclists were killed -- twice as many as in the same period in 2018.

The greatest frequency of fatal bicycle accidents is in cities with dense traffic. Cyclists above the age of 55 are disproportionately at risk, which accident researchers suspect has a correlation with the emergence of more e-bikes.

Traffic planners are now looking with unease at the newest transportation trend: e-scooters. These add an additional layer of traffic -- and danger -- to city streets, as riders compete with cyclists and motorists for space. But if cities were to prioritize cyclists at the top of the road hierarchy, these new dangers could be mitigated.

This has taken place, to a degree, in the German city of Göttingen, which has 135,000 inhabitants of whom 35,000 are students. Twenty-eight percent of road users are on bicycles.

The city has been home to a bike highway for four years, the first in Germany to run straight through a city center -- 4 kilometers long and 4 meters wide. Especially smooth asphalt has been used to minimize resistance. The main innovation in Göttingen, though, is that cyclists have been given priority on one of the city's main traffic arteries, with stoplights programmed according to their speed, and not that of the cars.

In 2018, the city of Berlin opened its first street bicycle path that is protected from neighboring drivers.
DPA

In 2018, the city of Berlin opened its first street bicycle path that is protected from neighboring drivers.

Urban Planning Councilor Thomas Dienberg, 56, had flow sensors installed in the bicycle lanes in order to make this possible. If at least five cyclists pass the flow sensors at certain points, the software switches the upcoming traffic lights to synchronize with the speed of the bicycle traffic. Dienberg says it wasn't technically difficult. What needs to change, he says, is the thinking that cars automatically have priority.

Göttingen has also rebuilt traffic light-regulated intersections to give cyclists priority over vehicles that are making right turns. The only thing Dienberg hasn't been able to implement is a city-wide speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour. The current speed limit on the books -- 50 kilometers per hour -- doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon.

Safety Concerns

It is quite possible that a 30-km/h speed limit debate will soon be opened nationwide -- at least if the number of accidents involving two-wheeled vehicles continues to rise. Because things are getting tight: In Frankfurt alone, nine scooter rental companies have registered with the city administration. And the cities can't refuse the desire for the e-scooter industry to expand. Munich expects to have around 10,000 scooters that, as stated at a recent meeting of transport ministers from the state and federal level, can serve as "building blocks for the mobility of the future." At the same time, however, they are also fueling safety concerns.

Hessian Transport Minister Tarek Al-Wazir warns that "if the bicycle boom and the e-scooter boom have to be handled by cycle paths as they exist today, things aren't going to end well." The politician, a member of the Green Party, sees only one solution: "More legal leeway" for cities to redistribute traffic, with "less space for cars and more for bicycles and scooters."

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