‘Private vehicles have no place in city centres’

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: AdobeStock – Kara, Benno Tobler VG GZ, Marc Matthaei

Cities are full and our transport infrastructure is reaching its maximum capacity. However, it is not the vehicles that supply supermarkets, retail outlets and construction sites that need the most space, but rather private vehicles. How can this be reduced? This is what two experts from Hamburg discuss on motionist.com: Professor Gesa Ziemer, Head of the City Science Lab at Hafencity University, researches mobility in the cities of tomorrow. Hans Stapelfeldt, Network Manager at Logistik-Initiative Hamburg, is responsible for implementing the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) strategy and the ITS World Congress 2021.

Professor Ziemer, what means of transport do you use when you are travelling in Hamburg?

Gesa Ziemer: I only ride my bike here, and even when I travel, I try to use local bike-sharing services – most recently, the Bluebike-System in Boston. When it is raining cats and dogs, I use a ride-sharing service such as Moia or sometimes a taxi. But I also have a car because I regularly go to the countryside and there is no public transport there. In my home country of Switzerland, it is still possible to reach remote Alpine regions without your own vehicle. But travelling to Schleswig-Holstein by train or bus is often difficult.

You are researching what mobility could look like in the cities of tomorrow. One thing is clear: urban spaces are full; more and more stakeholders are sharing the available space. What developments do you see here for delivery traffic?
Ziemer: For most cities in Europe, but also on many other continents, it is clear that we need to reduce the use of private cars in city centres. This means that, in the future, we’ll still see vehicles from delivery and goods sectors, but private vehicles will have no place here. To find out how this can work well, many trials are underway. In such cases, for example, individual city districts or streets are closed to private vehicles for a few weeks to see what effects this has. It goes without saying that commercial traffic generated by suppliers serving local shops are still permitted to maintain supply. During these trials, residents are encouraged to walk more or use rented bicycles, for example. We have just witnessed such a project in Hamburg – in Ottensen and also in the city centre – and the outcomes were positive: it works well and just largely depends on how a district is structured, whether there are a lot of trade and catering businesses. You have to be very aware of this and think really carefully about how to implement it and what effects it will have.

Hans Stapelfeldt: I think it is important to stress here that it is impossible to imagine a car-free city for an entire metropolis. As an ITS-Netzwerkmanagement-Office, we are also planning to implement individual concepts in pilot districts. By doing so, we are discovering that we already have an incredible number of tools, technical ideas and start-ups that would enable us to get started right away and partially ban private vehicles in neighbourhoods. The key factor will always be that commercial traffic – i.e. traffic required to continuously supply these neighbourhoods – is safeguarded, as is the quality of life of the people living there. I believe concepts based on micro-hubs from which e-drive vehicles deliver goods are particularly promising.

For a three-month pilot project at the end of 2019, two streets and the parking lots near the Hamburg City Hall were closed to private vehicles.
How much less car traffic can there be?

Stapelfeldt: I don’t think it is necessary to radically ban passenger vehicles from city centres altogether. It already has a very significant impact if you reduce private cars by 20, 30 or even 40 per cent. For example, you can organise the day differently and specify that traffic must have left neighbourhoods by a certain time in order to have a relatively long period during which the streets are free for pedestrians and cyclists. Gesa, I’m interested in your opinion about one thing: should we differentiate between new and existing buildings in urban planning – or can we consider them together?

Ziemer: I think we need to consider them together. On the one hand, there is a lot of old stock, and new concepts must also be tested there. On the other hand, there is a lot of construction going on in growing, attractive cities around the world – generally speaking, upwards not outwards since there is no free space left. New buildings are increasingly rented or sold together with a mobility-on-demand system. I consider such systems to be particularly important because they combine transport systems – such as via an app that shows me which mix of means of transport I can use to reach my desired destination. There are cities where this already works very well: Helsinki, for example, has an app called Whim; it combines public transport, city bikes, taxis and rental cars. But of course, Helsinki is a relatively small city with only around 650,000 inhabitants – it naturally becomes much more complex in larger cities. But I think such models are interesting.

»In the future, we’ll still see vehicles from delivery and goods sectors, but private vehicles will have no place here.«

Professor Gesa Ziemer, Head of the City Science Labs at Hafencity University in Hamburg

What time frame do you envisage before seeing a significant reduction?

Ziemer: I am not a fan of giving specific dates, as some cities claim to do. This is usually rather political and often not feasible. I really think we have to test this. It takes a lot for a city to head in this direction. Above all, it must work in an interdisciplinary way. If you reduce private transport, this not only affects the mobility industry, but also trade and industry, and you also need people to adopt a certain mindset so that they are prepared to give up their private vehicles in the first place. Tourism and marketing must advertise that a city operates in such a way. But that’s exactly what I find exciting: a city is suddenly forced to have different disciplines working together, and a project like this is launched together.

Stapelfeldt: Yes, it is not enough to have just one authority, one institution, one means of transport – everyone has to think together to shape it. At ITS, we work a lot with trip chains, in other words, the connection between the routes people take for work, home and life. We think that these processes must be designed from the very beginning, and we have a project that focuses on people who are new to Hamburg, for example. We want to pick them up right from the start and see this as a great opportunity to reshape the mobility behaviour of people and families. This requires interdisciplinary work.

Ziemer: In urban planning, we always talk about the ‘city of proximity’, and at the time of talking to one another – mid April 2020 – we are in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown. Right now, we can clearly see which neighbourhoods are resilient and sustainable, i.e. can largely maintain themselves because there are doctors, shopping facilities and a social infrastructure. The idea of a functional city, where you work in one area and live somewhere else, is based on car traffic and that doesn’t work at all in coronavirus times. In contrast, neighbourhoods that have a kind of in-built resilience work well. And you have just said something similar, Hans: urban planning must consider how it can meet a range of people’s needs so that they don’t have to travel so much.

Although private cars account for the majority of city traffic, public perception is particularly critical of delivery traffic. Loud complaints are made about CEP vehicles and trucks that supply restaurants or construction sites since they take up so much space. How could this look in the future?

Stapelfeldt: I believe there will be significantly greater collaboration and grouping. I recently had a very exciting appointment at the wholesale market in Hamburg, which supplies neighbourhood restaurants, among others. In the morning, 20 companies, each with their own vehicles, set off to visit 20 restaurants. And so here, many are calling for a kind of shuttle system – it could be set up with vehicles that start at the wholesale market, combine the goods together and then take them to the individual quarters. This kind of system is currently being explored across many different areas. Cities could support this by designating city areas in which a fee must be paid per pallet or parking space, for example. They do not want to intervene much yet, but if we want to meet climate targets, we will at some point need to start coming up with really creative solutions – particularly in individual neighbourhoods – to curb commercial traffic a little more and make it more effective and efficient.

Ziemer: In the field of urban development, the issue of noise and emissions generated by logistics traffic is also key. Right here in Hamburg, where the port area at Grasbrook is being developed as a new residential area, urban planning is considering from the very beginning how traffic can be managed to reduce these emissions.

Ms Ziemer, what role do technologies play in this regard?

Ziemer: I work on modelling traffic systems in the City Science Lab, which I head, and I believe that here in Germany, we still have a long way to go to model traffic and analyse it in real time – such as by using data from sensors in traffic lights. But people’s mindset is crucial, too: technology will only be a success if people use it and see the sense in it. This is particularly important when it comes to mobility since it affects all people – everyone is on the move.

Stapelfeldt: I fully support this. At ITS, we are technically super equipped, but we have found that mobility and logistics solutions can only be found if behavioural economics is also taken into account. To express it as a proportion, we estimate it to be 80 per cent technology and 20 per cent behavioural economics. People must want it and like it, too. Changes in mobility and logistics must be as appealing and attractive as Nutella, otherwise they will not be used by consumers. We therefore want to draw in the people even more – i.e. end customers – and convince them that the economy and people’s quality of life can be improved in parallel.

»Changes in mobility and logistics must be as appealing as Nutella.«

Hans Stapelfeldt, ITS Network Manager at Logistik-Initiative Hamburg

Ziemer: It is impossible to force changes in mobility behaviour through bans, but rather through attractive offers where people can see that it works. But then these offers really must deliver on their promises. If I have an appointment, I want to arrive on time. And if the app doesn’t work, I’ll delete it from my smartphone.

Stapelfeldt: In Hamburg, we are trying to increase the average number of passengers in a car. It corresponds to the national average of 1.2 people; we are aiming for a value of between 1.4 and 1.6. But we will only actually achieve this through incentive programmes – you have to make people an offer that makes it attractive for them to commute between work and home together. They simply wouldn’t do it voluntarily.

Ziemer: This brings me back to Helsinki, where flat rates were introduced for a mobility-on-demand system. For a certain amount per month, you can use everything: taxis, public transport and bicycles, as well as car-sharing services, without paying for each service individually. That is a big incentive to switch to this system.

Stapelfeldt: The 70+ generation should not be forgotten either – for them, such a flat-rate model would be very attractive.

If we imagine a city with significantly fewer private cars, who will benefit most?

Ziemer: Public space is greatly enhanced and all residents benefit from this. In fact, the current coronavirus times are proving to be an excellent real-life laboratory since we are learning how pleasant our cities would be with less traffic. They’re quieter, cleaner and we have more space. Where there are no or significantly fewer cars, you need much less parking space and you can create green spaces; catering businesses can set up more chairs outside and children can play in the street. There are some really beautiful pilot projects around along these lines.

Stapelfeldt: There are still those who say that if we remove private cars, the retail trade will collapse. However, there are many studies that demonstrate the opposite is true – people perceive shopping to be an experience once more when they can walk calmly through a green, quiet city centre. I actually believe that people’s quality of life decreases when the use of private cars increases. And if the number of cars is reduced, people will automatically head for the city to saunter around more, to shop, eat out or go to the cinema.

Will delivery traffic always have a place?

Stapelfeldt: Yes, most certainly. I think that technological developments are heading more towards hydrogen and e-mobility. However, we will only see electrically powered commercial vehicles in lower payload classes, while other drive models will have to be used for the higher ones. It is more a question of when and how this will be distributed – and what about small-scale distribution? I think that will be the pivotal question.

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