"In traffic, people are pragmatistic"

We talked to Andreas Knie about how far the paradigm shift in mobility has evolved, what it takes to get people out of their car, and why additional mobility alternatives alone are not enough.

Andreas Knie is a political scientist in Berlin and has been engaged in mobility research for years. We talked to him about how far the paradigm shift in mobility has evolved, what it takes to get people out of their car, and why additional mobility alternatives alone are not enough.

 

Dr. Knie, what brought you into mobility research? Did you have a key moment?

I did my PhD on engines early on and habilitated. Of course it is not enough to deal with cars and traffic. And once you start to deal with it, you quickly realize that the future of transport in a modern, democratic world is no longer possible only by car.

 

Are we already in the middle of a turnaround in mobility?

Well, if you look at the situation, you can interpret the glass as half full or half empty. If you think it would be half empty, you would argue that we still have too few regenerative drives, there are still too many cars on the roads. There is still too much of the same. If one wants to say that the glass is half full, then of course one already sees a change. In cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne or Stuttgart, around 20 percent of the population already use car sharing, bike sharing or scooter sharing. Only 20 to 30 percent of the ways are covered by car - the preference for the car is in decline. That's encouraging. In any case, one can see that the success of a paradigm shift in mobility depends very much on the political framework.

 

What do you mean by that?

We have done everything in the past 40 to 50 years for the car to succeed. And we have also taken care that free parking of the car is guaranteed. If just 8 percent of the parking space in Berlin are managed, and driving remains so cheap, then any alternative offer will have a hard time succeeding. That should be changed.

The scarce, public space must be redistributed. We need parking management at the real cost. And we have to combat the dominance of the combustion engine, which could be done, for example, via strict emission limits as a restriction. Politicians often remain inactive because they think that goes against the wishes of the car manufacturers. That’s wrong. Instead, we would have to offer the car manufacturers basic conditions, to force them to rethink mobility and open up experimental space where they can test new mobility models.

 

Is the glass half full or half empty for you? Are we threatened with traffic collapse in German cities?

Now, I would rather see the glass half empty. We have a lot of debates, but we have not really gotten started discussing the very underlying questions, such as parking, financing based on the usage of road infrastructure, or emission standards. Also, new laws such as the mobility law in Berlin are only intentional laws. In principle, it only says that the city would like to give bicycles more space. Unfortunately, it does not list any measures that can be used to specifically put the law into action. In addition, for a genuine paradigm shift in mobility, it will take federal laws like the car-sharing law. But not even that law is visible in its effects.

In general, the political debate hasn’t progressed very far: We still see party arguments such as "the car driver should not be scolded further". Still, slowly, the debates are going in the right direction.

 

Who should control urban mobility?

We don’t know that exactly because we don’t yet know exactly what to expect. In US cities and some other major cities around the world, we can already take a glimpse into the future: there must be a city mobility direction, an orchestration. Public transport will play a key role here. It owns the large vessels we need to handle traffic efficiently. In this role, it will also define the time periods and operating areas for on-demand traffic in conjunction with the fixed lines.

In general, however, we first need an amendment to the Passenger Transportation Act (“Personenbeförderungsgesetz”). Public transport should not only get the funds, but should also be forced to allow on-demand traffic. We have only just begun the discussion and at the moment, we can only guess what to expect. But one thing is for sure: We will not find out about the future if we only experiment with a few small fleets.

Is it enough to create new mobility services so that people ditch their private vehicles in the city? For the younger generation, this seems self-evident, but for the older the car often seems very important.

I do not even count myself among the younger generation, but I, too, have not owned a car for ages. The car as a status symbol has served its purpose. For most, the car has now become a commodity. For many people, cars today are a product without a brand. There are thousands of models, none can really surprise and the differentiation seems to have become more difficult.

I also like to say that the relationship between people and the car is turning more and more from a love relationship into a marriage of convenience. The times when senior councilors drove a Volvo and certain people a Mercedes or BMW are long gone. To cut a long story short, we do not need to wait for the extinction of certain generations, the erosion tendency is already running through all ages.

 

And yet: How can we better convince people to leave their own car in the garage more often or even to ditch their own car?

Take the thousands of people who daily commute to the cities and make up a substantial proportion of the city's traffic. That's about 350,000 to 400,000 in Hamburg. If today they try not to drive to the city center by car, the alternative often looks like this: they travel by car or bicycle to the Park & Ride facility, then take the S-Bahn to the city, then the subway to work. In the evening, they have to travel back the very same way, with 2 to 3 interchanges. You can understand that many then prefer point-to-point mobility and use their car.

People are surprisingly pragmatic in traffic, you could say almost pragmatistic. You drive a car for as long as it is useful. If you have an alternative or an incentive to do it differently, you will do it differently. So, on the one hand, we have to make the alternatives better, and, as already mentioned, for example, fully digitize public transport. Tariff zones, tickets, counters - nobody wants that anymore. On the other hand, people will use these alternatives when the situation for the car changes negatively, so for example, when distance pricing or diesel bans are introduced.

 

Many are afraid of the changes, they fear that things will change for the worse. What do we have to look out for so that digitization can do good for urban mobility?

Digitization certainly accelerates a certain singularization and thus also a pluralization of solutions. It will be important that we do not support these trends in mobility with corresponding driving devices, i.e. individual vehicles for everyone, because this would tend to increase traffic in the city.

In general, one can say that good digitization needs good regulation. In any way, we first have to foster digitization, see what it does and then look at the options for regulation. In the end, it could be that the possession of certain vehicles or their use in certain areas is prohibited or that usage is made so expensive that no one uses them.

 

Would that be socially just, if then rich people can afford an individual driving device, but poorer people can’t?

Democratic societies are plural societies. There is always a diversity of people with different characteristics, including different levels of wealth. Rich people may have drones in the future, but even today these people already have private jets or very expensive cars that others can’t afford. But wealth is only relevant if others also want it. For some behaviors, I think social desirability will be reduced. Maybe in the future people who drive into the city with their big SUV will be considered as very embarrassing figures.

 

In your opinion, are we in Germany ready to go new ways in mobility or are the Germans still very much committed to their own car?

There is a debate in this country that I underestimated for a long time. In Germany, we already anticipate the car industry in the mobility debate, even before it has said one word. We are making an industrial policy that preserves everything. We followed a very similar approach in the steel and coal industry. But that doesn’t help. Our protective attitude destroys the car industry because it prevents further development and does not promote it. The Scandinavians are much further in the debate, the Dutch are also making headway, big communities like Paris and London are moving forward, but not us in Germany.

 
ANDREAS KNIE IS A POLITICAL SCIENTIST AT THE SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH CENTER BERLIN AND LECTURER AT THE TU BERLIN. HIS RESEARCH FIELDS ARE SCIENCE RESEARCH, TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH AND MOBILITY RESEARCH. FROM 2001 TO 2016, ANDREAS KNIE WAS DIVISIONAL MANAGER FOR INTERMODAL OFFERS AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT AT DEUTSCHE BAHN AG AND BETWEEN 2006 AND 2018 FOUNDER AND MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE INNOVATION CENTER FOR MOBILITY AND SOCIAL CHANGE (INNOZ). SHAREHOLDERS ARE DEUTSCHE BAHN AG, DLR AND WZB. SINCE 2017, HE HAS BEEN HEAD OF THE RESEARCH POLICY GROUP SCIENCE POLICY AT THE WZB.