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

E-scooters at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

Foto: Christoph Soeder/ DPA

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?

Foto: 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.

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

Foto: Paul Zinken/ picture alliance/dpa

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."

'If You Take Climate Protection Seriously, You Need To Get People on Public Transport'

2. Strategies Against the Traffic Collapse

The unheard-of is already underway in Frankfurt. It was already being talked about 30 years ago, says Klaus Oesterling, the government official responsible for managing traffic in the city, but now it's time to "just try it out." In August, Frankfurt closed a stretch of city-center road to vehicle traffic along the Main River between two important bridges. Each day, some 20,000 vehicles thunder across the three-lane road, but the city installed concrete bollards to stop automobiles -- at least for the time being. Ultimately, Oesterling would like to install permanent bike lanes here, cozy spaces for pedestrians as well as outdoor dining establishments with views of the river.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The city's government, a coalition comprised of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, agreed to conduct the "traffic experiment" for one year. But Oesterling, a member of the SPD, is optimistic. "Once you've got something like that in place," he says, "there's no turning back."

Word has gotten around to other cities about the strategy, which they view as a model for success. The idea is to introduce something as a test and then focus on making sure residents not only get used to it, but also like the change.

In response to those concerned about the added traffic jams such changes may create, Oesterling points to the decision 40 years ago to close parts of downtown Frankfurt to vehicle traffic, creating major pedestrian zones like the Zeil and the square in front of the Alte Oper concert hall, as well as some adjacent streets. In 2009, the city also converted an additional north-south axis along the Zeil into a pedestrian zone. There have always been forecasts predicting a traffic disaster, "but that never happened," says Oesterling, "and it won't happen on the banks of the Main River either."

Tangible Constraints

The traffic official views himself as a manager of tangible constraints: "In the past 10 years, Frankfurt has grown by around 100,000 people, and 50,000 of them brought cars along with them." The city now faces constant traffic jams in addition to driving bans on diesel vehicles because nitrogen oxide levels in the city frequently exceed EU limits.

At first glance, Oesterling's countermeasures seem simple. He wants to strip at least one lane away from car traffic on several four-lane traffic arteries in the city and reserve them for bicycle traffic. He also wants to increase parking fees by one-third and make it mandatory to charge commuters for parking spaces in central districts. The SPD politician is also considering "gatekeeper traffic lights" on the outskirts that would only allow a limited number of vehicles into the city per hour.

The Battle over Distribution of Space

Parking spaces are something of a hidden reserve in the battle over the distribution of space. The city of Cologne recently approved a plan that will see the number of parking spots available in the city center reduced by 10 percent each year. But such efforts to deter car drivers can quickly become a political issue. As Martin Huber, the city-state's department head for roads and transport, knows, the people of Hamburg "pay very close attention when the number of parking spaces changes -- and there are also some harsh reactions." It doesn't take much for a storm of indignity to break out in the local media in the affluent port city over an increase in parking fees.

But it is also clear to the experts that as long as it is cheaper to park a car in the city center than it is to travel by public transport, there will be no economic incentive to go without a car. The situation has become particularly absurd in residential areas located close to city centers. Under current laws, parking fees cannot be charged here without a special reason.

Still, since 1980, municipalities have had the right to reserve parking spaces along the streets in those areas for local residents. This does have the effect of reducing competition in the search for parking spaces, but it is nonetheless preposterous given that a resident parking permit costs 10 euros per year in Berlin, 30 euros in Munich and 25 euros in Hamburg. That's a bargain when compared to the fact that the price of a spot in an underground parking spot in many large cities when making a real estate purchase can easily set a person back 30,000 euros. By contrast, 12 square meters of public space costs a maximum of 8 cents a day with a residents' parking sticker.

The Association of German Cities has clearly positioned itself, arguing that an annual parking sticker for residents should cost up to 200 euros. Other countries have taken a more aggressive stance: Stockholm charges more than 800 euros a year for parking stickers for local residents. Some cities in Europe also levy a congestion fee merely for driving into the city center. London charges drivers a fee of 13 euros between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

All Eyes to Spain

Currently, transportation experts are eagerly eyeing developments in Madrid, where Mayor Manuela Carmena, 75, closed parts of the city center to single occupancy vehicles in November. The famous Gran Via, where the big fashion labels have their shops, can only be accessed by buses, taxis and suppliers with special permits. Two of its six lanes were closed to expand the sidewalks.

Carmena's predecessors from Spain's conservative People's Party had locked away city planners' proposals for extending the existing pedestrian zones in the historic city center out of fear of losing votes from businesspeople, hoteliers and restaurant owners. But the former judge, who had experience fighting against the regime of dictator Franco as a member of the banned Communist Party, didn't shy away from implementing those plans.

The European Commission had threatened to fine the highly indebted Spanish capital millions of euros for violations of nitrogen oxide emissions. So, the leftist and Green Party city government implemented the "Madrid Central" plan. Since then, only residents, taxis and buses with an environmental sticker have been allowed into the Central Madrid zone, which is marked with thick red lines on the asphalt and large signs. Residents of the historic city center have been given five years to purchase environmentally friendly vehicles.

In May, air pollution in the city fell to its lowest levels since measurements began in 2010. Meanwhile, polls show that 60 percent of Madrid residents are content with Carmena's transport policy. Residents of the city center have also noticed a drop in noise levels and improved air quality.

But the future of Madrid Central is nevertheless in doubt. In the mayoral election at the end of May, Carmena and her allied parties failed to secure a majority and a conservative has now become mayor. One of his first measures after taking office was to suspend the 90-euro fine for anyone who violated the rules. The new mayor also happens to be a passionate motorcycle rider.

The Logistics of the Last Mile

The challenges facing city centers all across Europe have been exacerbated by increasing delivery traffic. In Hamburg, a panel recently convened to rethink the "logistics of the last mile," a reference to e-commerce and the increase in traffic it has created. In Hamburg alone, far more than 300,000 packages are delivered each day, a figure that is expected to grow to 500,000 over the next decade.

A DHL employee uses a cargo bike to deliver packages in Berlin.

A DHL employee uses a cargo bike to deliver packages in Berlin.

Foto: Sina Schuldt/ dpa

There are many ideas out there for how to prevent this kind of traffic, including the use of drones or, in a canal-filled city like Hamburg, waterways. could be used, as could waterways. Interim storage facilities are another idea, from which deliveries could be brought to the customer with the use of cargo e-bikes, for example. At the end of its work, the panel is expected to produce a model that can also be used by other cities.

On the short term, the industry is hoping for relief in the form of loading zones that are to be provided by the cities and will be modeled after taxi stands. But this would only work if there were a total ban on normal cars stopping in these areas.

3. Local Public Transportation Gets an Upgrade

When nothing else worked, when 70 German cities had to admit in February 2018 that they were going to violate EU regulations on air quality, the German government came up with a splendid idea. In a letter to the European commissioner for the environment, it said it was considering making local public transportation free.

"This was and remains a fallacy," says Henrik Falk, a lawyer by training who for a good three years has also been the CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG, which operates much of the city's subway and bus networks. The company operates four subway lines, 110 bus lines, employs 5,500 people and boasts annual revenue of around 540 million euros. Before taking up his position in Hamburg, Falk worked in sales and finance for the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, the German capital's public transportation network. If anyone knows their way around major German cities' public transportation systems, it's him.

Today, practically all large cities around the world have public transportation systems operating at full capacity. An abrupt transfer of car drivers to public transport would overwhelm the bus, tram and subway networks in no time at all, according to Falk.

Last year's panic is now over, but five cities are stuck with a "model experiment" for free transport. Experts already think they know how it will end: as a flop.

Falk even considers it misguided to reduce the price of an annual ticket to 365 euros, as some politicians have suggested. It's always more expensive to drive one's own car, he argues. "Market research shows that price is not the top priority for many people, but rather quality, security, comfort and punctuality," Falk says. The number of customers transported by Hamburger Hochbahn AG has continued to rise over the past few years -- even though according to Germany's ADAC car owner's association, the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund gets the award for the highest annual ticket price in all of Germany.

Falk and his colleagues from the other major public transportation companies agree on how to best turn drivers into passengers: Improve the service, expand the network, increase the frequency. For 3 billion euros, Munich is planning a 10-kilometer subway line that will run through the city from north to south. Among other destinations, it will connect the city's central train station to the Allianz Arena, the home stadium of the city's vaunted soccer team, FC Bayern Munich. Cologne intends to build a new east-west connection with extra-long platforms at each stop, specially designed for trams that will be able to hold up to 800 passengers. Frankfurt's goal is to establish a subway line that runs around the entire city. And in Hamburg, the U5 subway line is slated to cut through the city from east to west by 2035, 24 hours each day, every day, and even every 90 seconds during rush hour. What's more: If everything goes according to plan, it will be fully automated.

Transport on Demand

But the public transport chiefs want to do more than just improve existing mobility networks. Since June, Berlin has offered an entirely new concept: Near the Schönhauser Allee station in the eastern part of the city, a variety of vehicles can be rented and paid for -- all via a single app. Whether shared cars, bicycles, electric Vespa-style scooters or electric foot scooters, no customer should have to walk or hail a cab simply because they require something other than a bus or train.

By 2029, Hamburg plans to introduce the so-called "Hamburg schedule." For Falk, this means that "within five minutes, the traveler should have the vehicle that they require or that they ordered." As far as Falk is concerned, this could also be a shared car from some communal fleet from BMW or Daimler. "Ultimately, it's an alternative to a car that someone owns by themselves and that sits around for 23 hours a day."

A subway station in Hamburg: "Public mobility isn't a business model. It's a social task."

A subway station in Hamburg: "Public mobility isn't a business model. It's a social task."

Foto: Daniel Bockwoldt/ picture alliance / dpa

A bus that drives around at midnight with only two people onboard can be neither economical nor sustainable. In the future, mobility experts agree, cities' public transportation offerings shouldn't run according to a set plan, but according to demand.

To that end, Hochbahn AG is taking part in Project Moia, an initiative spearheaded by the VW Group in which a number of small, gold-and-black buses move people around Hamburg -- luxurious 6-seaters with electric motors that can be ordered via app. The trial, which has so far been approved for one year, is a form of ridesharing, a comfortable, digital variation of the conventional shared taxi. An algorithm sorts customers' orders according to city district and proximity and total ride time is often shorter than it would be with traditional public transport. Plus, it's at least half as cheap as taking a taxi.

Public transport is an expensive service. Hochbahn AG covers 90 percent of its costs through ticket sales -- more than any other European city. The rest is subsidized by the city of Hamburg. In Cologne, ticket sales cover only 79 percent of the cost of running the local public transportation system, and even that level is higher than average. In Vienna, on the other hand, the ÖPNV is so attractive because residents are willing to share the costs: 40 percent are covered by the city.

"Public mobility," says Henrik Falk, "isn't a business model. It's a societal imperative." That's why, when he looks at the Moia vehicles, he doesn't see a competitor. He sees a potential partner whose service could be attractive where 12-meter-long buses simply aren't feasible. In the future, cities will also investigate "what kind of public transport model could prove economical for suburban areas," says Falk. Everything else will have to be publicly subsidized. Falk adds, "But for this, there needs to be the political will and political guidance."

4. The State Takes Responsibility

Germans are loyal creatures, at least when it comes to their cars. They love their automobiles. They take care of them. And they identify with them. 'We've always driven a Mercedes,' some people say, or: 'This is a VW family.' It's the kind of thing you hear a lot in this country.

People whose stature improved during the years of the German economic miracle documented their improving fortunes by purchasing their own car. Only people who couldn't afford a car rode a bicycle. "In school, you knew whose parents owned a car and whose didn't," recalls Tilman Bracher, an economist and traffic scientist at the German Institute of Urban Affairs (DiFu) in Berlin. As the director of the mobility division, he researches and advises the Association of German Cities.

Bracher believes he knows why the Germans have such a hard time giving up car ownership. In the postwar period, he says, "we developed a kind of automotive DNA that strongly influences our thinking and actions."

A vehicle with Hamburg's MOIA group taxi service

A vehicle with Hamburg's MOIA group taxi service

Foto: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/ dpa

Cars gave the feeling of freedom and adventure, the whole world envied our car brands, and we were told for decades that every seventh job in Germany depended on the automobile industry. Is it any wonder that governments seek to protect this model business, or that transport ministers measure their current level of achievement by the number of kilometers of motorway inaugurated?

When the streets started getting a little crowded in German city centers at the end of the 1960s, the government provided huge amounts of money so that cities could move their trams underground. "And above ground, the streets were widened to six or eight lanes," says Bracher.

But quality of life in cities is best in those places where the traffic is slow, not too noisy and where people can take walks or sit in squares watching passersby. Bracher's view is that these public spaces have been systematically destroyed.

'An Enduring Fixation'

Reinhard Loske, a professor at the University of Witten, says that politics has an "enduring fixation on automobiles." He points out that, under the German Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan for 2030, more money will continue to flow into road construction than into rail. Loske's colleague Rammler considers the German transport ministers of the last 15 years to be "the worst thing that could have happened to this country."

Even when the population exerts pressure and threatens to hold referendums, those in power still find ways of watering things down. Take the city-state of Berlin, where the local parliament passed a mobility law in 2018 that grants special rights to cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. At the same time, traffic scientist Bracher complains, the city made it easier for delivery traffic, and also insisted that motorists needed to be given appropriate consideration.

The biggest problem is that everything takes so long. Cologne has been planning a bike highway for commuters from the western periphery of the city for 10 years. Frankfurt has spent two decades debating a major regional light-rail line.

The Association of German Cities has outlined its expectations for the federal government in a paper on "affordable and sustainable mobility." The paper states that "traffic management should not primarily serve to make individual car traffic flow better" as is stipulated in Paragraph 45 of the German Road Traffic Regulations. Instead, the aim should be to improve the everyday lives of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.

Catching Up with the Zeitgeist?

Going by announcements made by Germany's Transport Ministry in recent months, it seems as though at least one politician there has caught up with the zeitgeist. Hardly a week goes by without Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer presenting a new campaign, new funding or some kind of legislative initiative. He can be seen in short videos riding his bike, wearing a green helmet and touting the "biggest bicycle reform in 20 years." He says the bicycle is an equal participant in road traffic. And that's why, he says, "we want to step on the gas."

Although this may sound like an unintentionally bizarre slogan for the self-proclaimed "bicycle minister," the idea is to make cycling safer. Looking ahead, the government wants to introduce a general ban on cars stopping in bicycle lanes, cars overtaking cyclists will have to keep a minimum distance and trucks will only be able to make right-hand turns at the speed of walking.

A technological solution has long existed to prevent the fatal accidents in which truck drivers fail to notice bicyclists as they turn: the turning assistant, a driving assistant that provides an acoustic signal if a cyclist is present. But jurisdiction for requiring the mandatory installation of the technology lies with the EU, and officials there have no plan to do so before 2024.

Scheuer has earmarked 10 million euros for forwarding companies so that he can't be accused of inaction. That's just a drop in the bucket, though, if you consider that 750,000 heavy trucks are registered in Germany.

But that kind of drop-in-the-bucket progress nothing unusual for the German government. It makes it look as though Berlin is doing something, even though it isn't achieving much. This applies to bicycle traffic, electric buses and the construction of subway or suburban railway lines. For many years, federal aid for such programs has been frozen at 330 million euros annually. Under pressure from the German states, that figure is now being increased gradually to 1 billion euros, but that's still not enough to make the great leap into the mobility of the future.

The Association of German Cities estimates that public transport alone requires modernization and expansion to the tune of 15 billion euros -- to be financed for over a 10-year period in 1.5 billion-euro tranches. "If you take climate protection seriously, then you need to get more people on public transportation," says Martin Huber, the head of Hamburg's Transport and Roads Office. He also says that if you want to get people away from their cars, you have to significantly increase funding.

He says major tasks lie ahead, but also that much more money will be needed for new means of mobility. One particular challenge that Minister Scheuer finds less pleasant, is that there will also be losers in the battle over how public space is distributed.

"In Germany, we always have a tendency to focus first on additional taxes and further bans," he recently lamented during a visit to the Greentech Festival, an innovation trade fair in Berlin. At the event, he enthusiastically went down the list of all the things his ministry is promoting: hydrogen propulsion for commercial vehicles, synthetic aviation fuel, electric charging stations and much more. He wants to shed his image as a minister in bed with the automobile industry bosses, but he would also prefer not to have to spar with the people who do drive cars. His mantra: "Don't forbid, don't demonize, don't make things expensive." But what about limiting the amount of parking space available? Or increasing parking fees? Or making parking for locals more expensive? Increasing fines for parking violations? None of this is on the agenda at the German Federal Transportation Ministry.

Instead, cuts are being made to the budget for improving the situation for bicycle traffic. In the draft budget for 2020, the money earmarked for transportation will grow by almost 600 million euros to 29.9 billion. However, expenditures for the booming bicycle segment is to be cut by almost 20 million euros.

At least this is how Stefan Gelbhaar, a member of the federal parliament with the Green Party, interprets Scheuer's figures: "Only a few weeks after he made them at the National Cycling Congress, it turned out that the announcements he made were complete hot air."

By Matthias Bartsch, Jan Friedmann, Christopher Piltz, Gerald Traufetter, Andreas Ulrich, Helene Zuber and Alfred Weinzierl

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