FAZ – Mobility in Germany

Nov 20, 2018

We kicked off our Monday afternoon at the Frankfurter Allgemeine‘s conference in Berlin on mobility in Germany, where experts discussed how the time has come change how we think and how we interact with the topic.

The Car: A Social Issue

The moderator Johannes Pennekamp of the FAZ set the tone for the conference by citing recent statistics that state that the average German travels 39km per day (this includes children, retirees, etc.). Therefore, a rethinking of mobility, traffic and sustainability is desperately needed.

Holger Steltzner, the publisher of the FAZ, spoke of the current debate around Diesel vehicles, possible impending driving bans, and the social aspect of the car – people living far away from cities cannot yet imagine their daily lives without a car. Additionally, the dream of a future city without congestion and without air pollution relies heavily on expanding local transportation options, but it remains a long process to change the status quo. Steltzner stated that Germany currently has 43 million cars, which means there are more cars than homes. In the countryside, 90% own a car, with 43% even owning more than one vehicle. Most people see the car as daily mobility, with only 20% using local transport. 

Nature & Mobility

Florian Pronold, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, held the opening talk at the event. He spoke of the intricate connection between an individual’s quality of life and mobility, as well as the role of protecting nature. We are no longer able to push the discussion to a point in time somewhere in the future because we urgently need to take action. And event this takes a long time: reaching a consensus for a solution is a time-intensive debate. 

Pronold also referred to the difference between access to mobility for city dwellers and for those living in the country making mobility a social question: Who can afford which mobility? Who has access to what? This has to become sustainable as we have to look at the ecological and economic aspects of it. Pronold, however, saw the differentiation between mobility hubs and scarcity as an opportunity, not merely as a problem: Germany has been known internationally as the birthplace of the automobile. This could be the chance to rival China, as we must ask ourselves where the mobility of the future is being produced? Therefore, rethinking mobility also has a huge economic potential. 

Regarding the ecological consequences, it is difficult to make a prognosis for 2040 or even 2050, as there is constant chatter about alternative powertrains such as hydrogen-powered engines, but little results being shown.  When looking at technology, we are living in a time of acclerated technological developments, such as the internet, the iPhone and all of the startups coming up with new innovations.

However, we must ask how this technological drive can be used in mobility to effect chance? For instance, an enormous part of CO2 emissions is created by searching for a parking spot. How does one change this? Are apps the solution? Another factor that should not be ignored are the divergent developments in car ownership: there is a cultural shift happening in cities to owning a personal vehicle, which could be driven further by autonomous vehicles. 

Also, despite an adherence of the German people to their love of the car, habits do change. Exhibit A: Supporting bicycle traffic in cities is not only healthier and good for the environment, but it also adds to the quality of life of citizens. But implementing this change cannot rest on the shoulders of cities alone, it has to be a political change that redirects how to better connect cities to surrounding communities, as for example of Copenhagen has done. 

We also currently have a varying consciousness of time and of how long things take: To have a remaining 100km with a Diesel vehicle almost incites panic in the driver, whereas 100km with an EV seems like a long way to go. Pronold is betting on a trifecta of economics, ecological concerns, and social challenges that we will need to face, but has no doubt that Germany can do it. Even if people are slow to change of their own free will, the climate goals set in Paris are stringent enough and are good guidelines on how to stick to a reduction in CO2 emissions. Also, if all else fails, money talks: If Germany does not achieve the agreed upon restrictions and reductions, the federal budget will be impoverished with the payments it will need to make to the EU. Ultimately, these changes are not being implemented as a joke: at the centre are people’s lives and their health, and this can no longer be ignored or relegated to a point somewhere in the future. 

The Future of Mobility

Also in attendance was Andreas Scheuer, the Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. He stated that due to Dieselgate people are doubting politicians and the car makers. Also, mobility guarantees work for many people, which becomes problematic with adaptations and changes in the sector. However, Scheuer repeatedly emphasised the importance of communes and cities confronting these problems themselves, instead of pushing off their responsabilities to the Federal Government. 

Additionally, Scheuer stated that in future, communes will only be supported if they are using current pollution data. Since 2009,  €5.2 billion have been invested in new technologies for alternative powertrains. From this, no successful products have been created. And yet, the BVG is using new busses by a Dutch company, and Germany has managed to reduce pollutants by 70%.

The questions needing to be asked are: Where can we be more efficient? Where can more research be done? Which new (digital) infrastructures are being used?

Scheuer lamented the lack of projects, as his ministry has the funding to support new, innovative mobility ideas. Despite pooling systems and automated driving being a chance for developments in the countryside, people out in the country and their mobility needs are often ignored. To Scheuer, there seems to be a decided lack of follow-through. 

A successful example of a funded programme, however, is Streetscooter by DHL. The zero-emissions light utility vehicle is tailored systematically to individual needs, meaning that this is not merely a car, but rather a tool on wheels.

Despite it being slow and tedious, the industry does seem to be in flux. Scheuer is enraged about the slow speed of development: Germany is limited by regulations that have to be me; by court decisions; by actions that should have to be completed locally; and also by decisions that get passed along until they reach the level of the federal government, or, when it comes to CO2 emissions, even the EU-level. 

Germany currently has 65 cities that are being monitored for air pollution, with 15 cities being severely impacted. Scheuer has met with the municipalities and the Ministry will now only support cities where the air quality control plan is not older than 1 year.  With €1 billion reserved to aid the cities, the Ministry will be looking more closely at the programmes they are supporting.

Scheuer closed the session with a humorous dig at the news that he was now an Uber-lobbyist as news reports spoke of him supporting the ridesharing company’s endeavours to expand in Germany after numerous problems. However, Scheuer emphasised that Uber is not the only company to be rethinking mobility, with other players such as mytaxi and MOIA also benefitting from a redrafting of the Passenger Transportation Act (Personenbeförderungsgesetz).  The constant question should be: Where do we enable mobility?