Town and country – two-class mobility

Nov 24, 2020

Wherever we are – in urban or rural areas – mobility is essential to our daily lives. Yet the solutions for shifting to a new mobility diverge greatly in their approaches. And while some people have more than enough different options, others have to wait a whole hour for a bus.

At present, some 77 percent of Germans live in towns and cities. Metropolitan areas such as Berlin and Munich attract ever more residents. This is pushing not only schools, medical facilities, the police and fire services to their limits, but also the traffic infrastructure in particular. The new residents bring their cars with them. From 2005 to 2020 the number of cars in Berlin grew by 130,000. The traffic information provider INRIX regularly investigates the volume of traffic in more than 900 towns and cities around the world. Its Global Traffic Scorecard 2020 showed that on average, German motorists lose more than 46 hours in congestion over the year. As in previous years, Munich is Germany’s congestion capital. Here motorists spend around 87 hours in traffic queues. Berlin follows on 66 hours and Düsseldorf on 50 hours. This does not even include the time taken to find a parking spot. INRIX had already come up with figures on the tedious search for a parking space in 2017. In Frankfurt am Main every motorist spends over 65 hours a year looking for somewhere to park. In Berlin it is almost as much as the time lost in congestion. In addition, a (political) struggle has developed between the various road users to gain more room for their own form of transport, and bitter slanging matches between cyclists, pedestrians and motorists have become commonplace. So what has to change?

The end of car-centered cities

The earlier car-centered urban planning is now obsolete. The automotive industry shares this opinion. The limited public space in our towns and cities must be allotted in new ways. Residents are demanding more protection from noise and emissions. So the need for new solutions is enormous. Today five to 15 percent of the urban area is reserved for parks. Each car requires 4.5 square meters. Studies have shown that the average passenger car is in use for less than one hour per day. With the exception of longer journeys, these vehicles are therefore stationary for 23 hours a day – or are not used at all. The consulting firm M-Five from Karlsruhe calculated the following results for the 8th Mobility Monitor in 2019: the total area occupied by all the passenger cars in Berlin came to around 17 square kilometers. That equals roughly 214 times the area of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and nearly 13 percent of the total urban traffic area. In Munich the figure has risen to 19 percent.

Policy-makers and urban planners are already agreed that there will be fewer parking spots in the future. The space thus freed up could be used for broader footpaths and cycle paths, greening areas, parks and even residential accommodation. And as the available parking space shrinks, it will cost more. The times are long past when you could park your car for free in the heart of the city. In some places, city-center parking already costs up to three euros per hour, and regulated parking zones are being expanded. Add to this the zones reserved for carsharing schemes and electric vehicles. Protected cycle lanes are being relocated to the roadway. Priority lanes for buses and taxis are to be opened up to vehicles with alternative powertrains. Local public transport is specifically deploying fleets of electrically powered buses, which are still the most flexible and most important mode of passenger transport in towns and cities. The first city districts that promise a better quality of life through improved mobility concepts are being realized. In addition, the various forms of mobility are to be more closely connected by multimodal mobility apps that integrate local public transport, electric rental scooters and ridesharing services. The key will be to ensure seamless mobility and smooth changes between the modes of transport. After all, towns and cities are about coexistence and participation, and the transition to new mobility makes this clearer than ever before.

Private mobility services in the country? Not here. Source: Unsplash

Practically no alternative to cars in country areas

Whereas the great mobility debates get bogged down on the subject of inner-city chaos, vehicle bans or new mobility providers, the problems facing rural regions often do not feature in the discussions at all. Here private cars are still the dominant form of transport despite the many prophecies of their decline. While municipalities near major cities flourish, elsewhere whole regions, especially in the eastern German states, suffer hugely as residents head for urban centers. The consequence is that local public transport remains underdeveloped. The railroad station was closed years ago, the local bus runs only three times a day and not at all on Sundays. The low demand and high costs guarantee that the local public transport company is going to make a loss, and so more and more cuts are made. Timetables look thinner and fleets are scaled down. So were it not for private cars, many villages and regions would be cut off from the rest of the country. There are many reasons why people move to the cities: lack of prospects, training courses, studying for a degree or starting a new job or personal life-style. Age also plays a role. It is mostly younger people who leave for the cities, while families and older people are more likely to move to small and mid-sized towns or to prefer rural life.

Essential subsidies

While city-dwellers are swamped with options, alternatives are rare in the country. Carsharing and ridesharing providers are unable to expand even into peripheral districts. The population density is too low and the routes are too long. The market is not lucrative enough for the shareholders. Yet there is a huge need for new ideas in rural areas enabling people to travel to the doctor, the bank or the nearest station. This has spawned model projects, private initiatives and very local approaches based on the commitment of local residents themselves. In many places, interest groups and local politicians are founding initiatives and drawing up mobility plans. A citizens’ car pool could alleviate the situation. State-subsidized citizens’ buses and shared taxis on demand are among the options for addressing the urgently needed expansion or restoration of local public transport and rail services. They are available only to senior citizens and people with disabilities. The people carrier operates on demand and picks its passengers up either at designated stops or their own front door, to take them to the village shops, the station or the next town. But even with financial support, the vast majority of these services still operate at a loss.

A bench for ridesharers in the village of Gesees, southern Germany.

In the near future unstaffed, self-driving people movers could provide an alternative. Trials are under way around the world, including village schemes. Some municipalities set up stops years ago for people to get rides. These rideshare benches are located on busy roads close to bus-stops or parking bays. People who want a ride sit and wait until a car stops. Sponsors such as local companies, branches of banks and tradespeople generally cover the costs. And if the buses do not run frequently enough, volunteers have to fill the breach and act as bus drivers. In numerous regions organizations have been founded especially for this purpose. And then there are the first schemes with “shared buses” that carry goods or packages overland. These buses are driven by employees of logistics firms. As with all these home-grown operations and services, they are more effective when more people take part. In rural areas therefore, the shift to new mobility is – alongside issues of state funding and new technologies – basically a question of solidarity and participation.

(Stage photo: © William Daigneault/Unsplash)

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.