Hermann Knoflacher is one of the most cited and controversial traffic scientists in the German-speaking region. He is known for his criticism of the automobile and its space requirements in the city. We met him for an interview.
Which means of transport have you already used today, Professor?
I walk a lot, and I travel a lot by bike, as well as by public transport.
Do you always use this range of transport?
For 19 years, I am mostly without a car and have since then three chauffeurs: the bus driver, then the train driver and then the subway driver. Isn’t that pure luxury?
That's one way to see it. How was it for you when you gave up your car? A bad moment?
No, not at all. It was the perfect exit and I chose it for myself when the basic conditions were optimal for giving up my car. I have worked for decades to make it possible to live in a city without a car.
When did you start?
In the 1960s, Viennese politics had the plan to turn Vienna into a car city. Motorways were to be built on major axes in the city. However, the Viennese successfully defended themselves against this vision in a vote in 1972. When it came to limiting public living space so much and giving the car so much space, the Viennese realized that the quality of life would not rise. At the same time, the city closed tram lines.
At the time, I was given the planning contract for the pedestrian zones in the center. Nobody wanted that at the time, because it would mean to get rid of 120,000 cars a day which congested these roads. Also, the city wanted to remove the famous ring tram lines after the opening of the new subway line U2. In 1974, I was able to prove by a study that closing the ring lines would be a huge disadvantage for the city. So it was back in the 1970s, when the scientific foundations were developed, which allow a largely car-free city today. I'm not talking about a car-free city - cars will always be there for certain needs, but they need to be severely limited in urban environments.
As mentioned earlier, you have noticed that city and traffic planning can’t be based purely on motorists. What shaped your vision of a car-free city?
Science. I am an absolute opponent of ideology, I am also not a traffic philosopher. I work strictly according to scientific knowledge, which shows and proves what works. Central to me is that a city and its development must be based on people's needs, not those of cars. This means, for example, differences in planning when it comes to scales and sizes or speeds.
As you mentioned, the discussion on urban mobility has been going on for several decades, but sometimes it seems like there is no progress. Why aren’t we coming to solutions faster?
You are more pessimistic than me. I'm very optimistic. There are many areas where we see progress. Why we aren’t faster is because we usually only talk about sham solutions for symptoms. But nobody wants to tackle the core problem: the parking lot. It is a political and sometimes also a professional taboo topic. If we eliminated the parking lot from public urban space, we solved many problems and could very quickly solve the challenges of cycling, walking and also public transport, because this lever can create a lot of space.
Despite increasing traffic, poorer air, and increasing congestion, why do we still see growing car numbers per capita in many cities, especially in Europe, where public transport is comparatively well developed in many cities?
The decision for the car is not rational. The reason lies in the brain stem. My realization, for which I am criticized again and again, is that when driving, the human being is transformed into another creature: from a biped with 0.2 HP into a quadruped with 100 or more horsepower. To put it bluntly, there is less difference between a human and an insect than between a human and a motorist.
What you are saying is, that even if driving a car rationally makes no sense, we drive by car? Are humans really that irrational?
Humans are a fundamentally cultivated and social species. But driving makes us uncultivated and antisocial. When you look at evolution, reason and rationality are evolutionarily relatively young. And when we sit in a car and experience an increase in power and violence, our brains become activated and our rationality is overruled by simple biology. Giving up driving means taking power from yourself. In addition, we systematically reward this behavior financially and legally by setting a framework that favors cars; this does not help to make a reasonable decision for a more rational choice of mobility.
In many cities, local politicians seem to be discouraged and the reason why current traffic conditions are preserved. How did you convince politics with your concepts? What were your learnings?
Well, it would be nice if the achievements that we have were preserved and that conditions were stable. However, unless one pays constant attention and keeps developments positive and moving forward, urban transport policy is developing backwards. In any case, what is needed are courageous politicians with the will to shape things.
Especially at the level of the district policy, however, the parking lot is often defended with a view to the next election. But, as I said, I am optimistic: In Vienna, for example, we have some good discussions. Even conservative districts now block roads for traffic and give up parking spaces to create new urban habitats; for example, for children, in front of the schools.
Prohibitions always help, voluntariness would be better: In your view, are there currently enough alternatives to private cars in terms of comfort and privacy?
No, of course, there aren’t now. There is no other capsule like the car in which I can lock myself away from society and do things I might not do otherwise. Of course, I do not have this isolation in any other mode of transport. But the alternatives will evolve if you simultaneously remove the individual traffic from the city. There will be new opportunities for mobility, for the economy and for people through less private transport.
One alternative are new sharing concepts, such as the MOIA or bike-sharing. How do you currently rate the discussion around sharing concepts, such as the rental bikes?
Basically, that's a good thing. Of course, a change from ownership to sharing does not happen overnight. That needs a transitional phase. In any case, these are good solutions - or let me say a contribution - that go in the right direction. However, those services alone will not solve anything. But again, people are discussing the wrong things. For example, when we criticize 20 bicycles, which stand around somewhere, unused. They take just as much space as one or two cars. Have you ever seen such discussions about car parking?
The general discussion about car traffic will take a whole new turn if we think of autonomous driving. How do you assess this development? What opportunities and risks do you see?
Above all, I am a proponent of autonomous walking. This is the healthiest for all of us. But it is clear that private companies as well as public transport companies are working on it. A healthy company needs to think about its future development. When autonomous driving in the city prevails, the cars will slow down and adapt to pedestrian speeds. We will take less consideration as pedestrians and pay less attention, because we assume that the autonomous car will stop in front of us.
Autonomous driving will probably also lead to increased cooperation between cities and private providers and manufacturers. How do you think that cooperation between cities, private providers and public transport should look like?
The control over public transport in a city must always be in the public domain, that's clear. But obviously, when you secure a public service with a legal framework, the service could also be provided by private companies. I do not think that privatization of public transport companies would be good, but their offer can, of course, be supplemented by private offers, according to the specifications of the city.
Hermann Knoflacher is Professor emeritus at the Institute for Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering of the Vienna University of Technology. Knoflacher is known for his criticism of the automobile and its consequences for the human environment. The car is for Knoflacher "like a virus". With his "vehicle" developed in 1975, Knoflacher illustrates his criticism of the irrationality of road traffic, above all the urban one, and of its relatively high space requirement.