New building sites instead of parking space - a way to fight the increasing housing shortage in the metropolises? Design by Studio Schwitalla

IAA 2017
Which forms of settlement have which mobility needs?

Is the automobile on its way out? Or will it survive thanks to new types of engines? Or do we need more sweeping changes to the interplay between building and mobility? Thomas Wagner spoke to Christian Gärtner from Urban Standards about the steps needed for a new mobility policy.

Thomas Wagner: Diesel scandal, nitric oxide levels, particulate matter, the end of the combustion engine – will we all be driving electric vehicles tomorrow, with everything else regarding mobility staying as it is? In other words, will the automobile cowboy have his own horse in front of his house in future?

Christian Gärtner: When mobility is at stake the question of engines is secondary. The prime concern is how we organize mobility, and how exactly we will “possess” mobility in future. Mobility promises will be made that someone then has to deliver on. I no longer need to have a horse right in front of the house; you could say the horse will be made available in a different way. 

Christian Gärtner, CEO Urban Standards

The horse will come when I need it?

Christian Gärtner: Yes, the horse will come for the period you have indicated in advance that you need it for. In other words, the vehicle will be defined by what level of service the individual expects. Moreover, there will not be just the one horse, but different types of horses, and if desired you will be able to order a coach to pull up in front of your home. We will no longer get about in a single-occupancy-vehicle. Consequently, in order to move the discussion forward you need to break up the entire mobility chain: In front of which house do we have which horse and why? Which means, in the current discussion above all the connection between immobility and mobility is undervalued.

Does that mean a new form of mobility begins with building?

Christian Gärtner: You only have to look at the districts emerging at the moment. When it comes to parking lots they ram architectural atrocities into the ground with four stories, six stories, eight stories. The most extreme example is a high-rise in Mexico City with 17 stories below ground and 19 above. First you drive 15 minutes in a circle down, before being transported 26 or 36 stories up with the elevator. In other words, the core problem is that currently, although we have many districts in Germany that are set to grow by 20 to 30 percent in the coming 10 to 15 years, we have no official discussion about what the connection between buildings and mobility should be like in newly emerging urban quarters.

Is that because public discussion centers on e-mobility as the only alternative, but not on the fact that we also want or need to alter how we live our lives?

Christian Gärtner: Yes, the debate is drastically simplified too often. We don’t need to talk about the electric engine anymore – that is already coming. And in this respect the automobile industry is changing course, as can be seen at the IAA. Neither is the range the key issue that will hinder changes being made. What will prevent us from implementing the necessary changes in mobility – unless attitudes alter – is primarily the fact that we are simply not prepared in terms of urban planning. How many initiatives for an infrastructure of charging stations are we going to start without touching on the core of the problem? And the core issue is: How do we want to live and organize ourselves? And ultimately it all boils down to a few core drivers of change, which so far have not been combined.

Digitalization enables everybody to choose the best form of mobility at a time.

Who or what is then driving the change?

Christian Gärtner: First of all, you can see a change in people’s behavior: More and more people are doing without cars in inner city areas. That might sound like some kind of sharing economy, but often the reasons are of a purely practical and economic nature. The second driver is urban density – in some cities they are already talking about urban fracking. On a more graphic level that would be like superimposing Augsburg onto Munich. In other words, the city becomes condensed – and as the density increases you have to ask how the available space is going to be distributed and used. If we look at what proportion of the area is occupied by traffic today the figure is between 30 and 50 percent, depending on the country and what you include in your calculations. So we need to ask: How can we minimize the urban footprint of the car, and not only its emissions? And I can’t achieve that by just fitting cars with electric engines.

How then?

Christian Gärtner: By learning to understand how and why traffic comes about: Why does mobility come about at all? Which forms of settlement have which mobility needs? The second consideration is: Which form of development leads to which form of mobility? And the third point relates to the opportunities created by digitalization, in other words, all the mobility options that I can base on frequency of use, which eliminates the need to make an either/or decision, i.e., to have a car or not, and allows me to be mobile by defining down to the minute my fractional possession of a vehicle. The next development – the fourth driver – is technological progress. We are all talking about autonomous vehicles, and that is the long-term aim. One consequence is that we no longer need parking spaces because these cars will be constantly on the move. In other words, autonomous vehicles will completely restructure the typology of parking, because there will no longer be a connection between where I live and where I park. This will trigger a strategic reorganization of the city.

Houses instead of parking lots: piloted parking technology reduces the required parking space.

Sounds excellent. And where are the obstacles?

Christian Gärtner: Quite simply in the risks. You must appreciate that we are dealing with something where nobody can define their risks. Basically we are caught up in a huge vicious-circle situation: The real-estate industry does not know what concepts the automobile industry is developing. So they say: Rather than building properties we can’t sell because of the lack of parking space, we would rather build underground parking garages.

Which is understandable.

Christian Gärtner: Specifically this means that the real-estate sector says: We simply can’t incorporate an altered mobility concept into our calculations. And the automobile industry says: Fine, concepts like car-sharing pay off in certain areas, namely areas with a high population density and high demand. But when it comes to the peripheral districts of cities automakers have no basic information from real-estate developers that allows them to gauge where car-sharing models based on other forms of organization would pay off. And the user says: No way am I going to give up my car. I have no idea what service I will get. And the lawmaker says: Hang on a minute, we have parking space directives in place. You have to create parking spaces! And if you don’t do that we need to know for sure that people can organize their mobility needs differently.

Piloted parking technology will lead to another architecture and another behaviour.

So do we need politicians to take the initiative? If they defined clear specifications the automobile industry and real-estate sector could take orientation from them and adapt to different mobility options?

Christian Gärtner: Absolutely right. It’s what the automobile industry is saying and the cities are saying the same. But then things need to change at all levels of our federal system. The first diesel summit was an important start. 

In other words, politicians have brought the problem upon themselves?

Christian Gärtner: Not only politicians. We have drifted as if in a dream towards this problem, rather than sending positive signals for a transformation of transport and mobility embedded in a social discussion. You only have to look at how American and German media report about future mobility. Where do you find coverage on the opportunities here? You read about mistakes made in transport policy, and that often culminates in a call for more cycle paths. But that is not the only solution. It would be better to include all the factors in the calculation. Naturally, when newspapers publish photos of a street completely free of cars (Maximilianstrasse in Süddeutsche Zeitung) it looks good, but that is not enough. What is lacking is the level of discussion, a political and intellectual debate on what future we actually want to have and how we can shape it. 

Why is that? A few years ago it looked as if everyone was constantly talking about the future. People went to Silicon Valley en masse and a great deal was said about virtual worlds and a new economy.

Christian Gärtner: Now every firm has a chief digital officer and every city administration tries to get a CDO. The key question that springs to my mind is: Do we actually agree on how society can use digitalization to promote mobility? What kind of organization do we want to digitalize? Is it about making local public transport more attractive in isolated cases by introducing e-ticketing? Fair enough, I can and must do that. But that is not really society’s responsibility. Digitalization has to tear down the divides between the various forms of mobility, must promote a truly attractive, intermodal concept and be able to organize urban space.

Does digitalization also serve to cover up unsolved problems? Are we too enamored with the idea that a flood of data can sort out everything rather than finding out what kind of networking we actually want?

Christian Gärtner: Things are moving in that direction. The greater efficiency that digitalization promises is no use if I don’t know how exactly I want to use it. But there are also many positive examples. Stuttgart has created an interdepartmental function at head-of-department level that bundles all the actors involved in transport and coordinates a strategy of traffic guidance, avoidance, control and so on in an interdisciplinary manner. Digitalization is definitely a potential tool for this. But the political task is different. If I want to introduce a bike-sharing or e-bike-sharing scheme for greater Stuttgart or the metropolitan region of Stuttgart, I have to persuade and coordinate dozens of heads of local authorities. That does not require digitalization, but it does require patience, good persuasive powers and a clear mandate. Another example is the German Post (Deutsche Post) with its electric vehicles. They did not wait until someone else set a good example, but created one themselves – because they are primarily network operators and see how the existing networks come up against limits when society sets new operating conditions.

Nothing stays the same: the collage by architect Jürgen Meyer H. illustrates the revolutionary changes of the digitalization.

What is needed once more is experience with existing networks?

Christian Gärtner: Oh, definitely. Congratulations to all those logistics service providers who have recognized that the last mile is not a threat, but a challenge for their business that they all need to deal with. So they say: We have to ensure the entire mobility chain is reasonably sustainable, otherwise at some point society will give us the boot. We just have too few positive images.

Where could they come from? How can specific options be created?

Christian Gärtner: Well, they certainly cannot come from a single player, but have to be coordinated, because if you are going to set about reorganizing a city in a realistic way it can only be achieved if the relevant players cooperate. Which is where good concepts tend to fail. Risks have to be mastered together.

So you are saying that mobility issues have to be conceived along with questions of immobility, urban planning, regulations and profit expectations?

Christian Gärtner: That’s right. That is the discussion about the future we need to conduct. Local authorities are recognizing the necessity most clearly just now. And though nobody believes it at the moment, there is actually a willingness to change in the automobile industry, too.

What does all that mean for the coming years?

Christian Gärtner: My hope is that, given the threat of inner-city bans for diesel cars, a political momentum will be created and we get our act together and realize: We have to act now. There is an opportunity to do that in the next legislative period, to conduct a cross-party debate beyond ideological restrictions. There is enough pressure in city administrations to say: We also want to tackle the problems publicly. We cannot shy away any longer from reducing parking space or setting high costs for managing parking space. It is time to stop worrying that by talking about new ways of organizing mobility we might be giving up Germany’s industrial basis. What we need is a comprehensive communication campaign that is coordinated between various players – politics, city authorities, the automobile industry and the real-estate sector. 

Piloted parking (video)