Over the last 100 years, mobility has been shaped by the automobile, which brought us enormous efficiency and freedom. In return, we have subordinated our cities to the needs of individual automotive transportation and thus to the ideal of the functional city. Today, cities around the world suffer from this one-sided focus. Traffic jams, air pollution, and noise are just the apparent problems. Equally problematic is the disadvantage suffered by children, young people, the elderly, and the less wealthy.
We can now take various technical measures to combat individual symptoms - we are well aware of the discussion on driving bans, the promotion of EVs, or intelligent traffic management projects. But we are only ever solving part of the problem.
„Even if we were to exchange all cars with combustion engines for EVs overnight, our air would probably be clean. But the traffic jam does not disappear. And the inequality would remain unchanged. A real solution must go deeper and tackle the problems at the root.”
The public debate on mobility is multifaceted and controversial. Put simply, the conservative and utopian camps collide.
Conservatives hold on to the status quo to protect citizens' supposed habits, interests of industry, or past investments. The path of least resistance allows for optimization in detail at best.
Technology utopians believe that specific future achievements will solve all the challenges: Once we have flying cabs, autonomous cars, or hyperloops, our traffic problems will finally be solved. Think big and invest boldly - this is an attractive and likable attitude. Viewed objectively, many of these concepts work in a model world, but they often only serve particular interests or conjure up completely new problems (Traffic jams in the 3rd dimension 😱).
Social utopians believe in idealistic lifestyle models. Their philosophy: If everyone works from home, switches to a bike, and shares instead of owning, all problems are solved. Again, desirable goals collide with the diffuse, heterogeneous contexts and lifestyles we find in reality.
So these positions are all radical but one-dimensional in their own way. They hide the complex reality and retreat to a convenient, somewhat bossy position. For tangible progress, we need dialogue and pragmatic, inclusive solutions instead. Realists combine what makes sense with what is possible. They mediate between individual interests and the common good and strive for effective, sustainable solutions. How does that work?
Realists capture and evaluate a context comprehensively and without bias. What are the mobility needs and interests of individual entities such as the municipality, residents, commuters, and the economy? Which constraints and incentives do they bring to the table? Many years of experience with user-centered approaches have taught us that successful services and solutions are not created in an ivory tower but on the streets.
Realists fight for solutions that can be implemented. They embrace diversity and think evolutionarily. Everything begins with the development of an ideal vision. But it should always be grounded: How can we use existing infrastructure in the best possible way? Which pragmatic development path will enable us to achieve our goal? Which stakeholders do we need to involve at each stage? Which incentives and partnerships might be useful for this?
„What to do now? We envision five realistic measures to renew the mobility of our cities in a sustainable manner.”
The star of our future mobility has been cruising our roads mostly unnoticed for many years now. It has fallen into oblivion and is often unpopular compared to its alternatives. Yet it is highly efficient, individually applicable, and can be quickly electrified: It is the bus. Compared to individual cars, buses take up considerably less space and - with manageable investment costs - make many people, from children to senior citizens, highly mobile.
But if we want to convince the majority of the population to switch, we have to re-invent public transport, especially the bus. Whether to use public transport or the car must no longer be a concern for residents. We have to design public transport in the same way we have done with private transportation over the last 100 years: customer-centric.
„Frequency is Freedom.”
For the bus to be accepted by a broad segment of the population as an alternative to private transport, it is necessary to have high-frequency service and a dense network of routes. Cities like Reutlingen show that this is not only possible in model cities like Barcelona.
By upgrading public transport, cities create a robust foundation in an increasingly fragmented modal mix. The more consistently the upgrade is carried out, the greater the relief effect, for example, through separate lanes or the direct connection of other means of transport via mobility hubs. Halfhearted and underfunded measures will lead us in the wrong direction. In contrast, public-private partnerships between transport authorities and private companies offer great potential for useful and economical solutions.
In the niche between pedestrians and cars, more and more diverse means of transport for different purposes and age groups have gained a foothold in recent years. In the past, practically only the bicycle was available. Electrification has brought pedelecs, e-scooters, and many new forms of transport onto the streets. So there are a lot of alternatives to public transport and the own car. They will sustainably relieve inner-city mobility due to the lower space consumption.
The problem: Our infrastructure is not prepared for this. On the road and the sidewalks, the imbalance of forces creates danger, which is why these new players gather on the cycle paths. However, this medium-speed layer is not yet designed for growth and diversity. To switch to micro-mobility with a comfortable feeling, we need to give these means of transport significantly more space in the urban infrastructure and a dense, uninterrupted network of paths.
The development of the infrastructure for micro-mobility improves cities' resilience, promotes their inhabitants' health, and ensures less land consumption in the long term. The good news is that this does not necessarily require a lot of investment. Positive examples ranging from New York to Copenhagen to Tirana show that it depends on political will, persuasiveness and determination.
We will need a lot of patience to achieve our goal of reducing the need for mobility in general, i.e., avoiding traffic. Sustainable urban planning counteracts the extreme segregation of living and working that has long been practiced by developing mixed-use neighborhoods: a daily routine with shorter distances automatically reduces inner-city traffic. This forward-looking measure is so attractive because it not only avoids bans and restrictions but also strengthens people's sense of community and their identification with the neighborhood. It may work slowly, but it is all the more powerful.
A technically simple but culturally quite difficult measure is the collective acknowledgment that German cities have not been model cities for the future of mobility for a long time. So we must put aside our arrogance and learn from already established patterns from around the world quickly. And there are plenty of them: the cable cars in Medellín, the superblocks in Barcelona and the consistent cycling policy in Copenhagen.
One crucial principle applies to all these actions: we must replace gut feelings with objective, measurable results and key figures. If the positive effects of these measures become visible in the city as quickly as possible, we will establish them sustainably. After all, it takes time for people to leave the beaten paths they are used to. Therefore, we must not make hasty judgments, measure precisely, and visualize intelligently how infrastructure is actually changed by our actions. This requires new systems for data acquisition and visualization. Used intelligently, they awaken the strongest initiator of change in us humans: curiosity.
For more than 16 years, Intuity has been designing and accompanying projects in the field of urbanity & mobility. Are you an urban planner or practitioner in the public or private sector? Write to us - and let us shape the mobility of tomorrow together!