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‘I’m imagining a post-growth society that doesn’t keep ferrying people everywhere. This requires a city of short distances’, says Prof. Gesa Ziemer, head of the CityScienceLab at HCU Hamburg (Photo: private)
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5 questions for Prof. Gesa Ziemer

Deceleration of mobility

Prof. Gesa Ziemer heads up the CityScienceLab at HafenCity University Hamburg and researches the future of cities and the mobility of tomorrow. Instead of talking about ever newer technologies, she promotes a city with short distances and the deceleration of mobility.

Intermodality, networking, sharing, electric mobility and autonomous driving are the megatrends that will determine the mobility of tomorrow. In your opinion, which of these trends is of the greatest significance for inner city mobility?

New technologies are important and public transport in particular needs to be developed. But I also see a completely different aspect: the deceleration of mobility. I believe that we all move around far too much, and often for nonsensical things. This is something I also see in my everyday life. We’re invited to conferences in Shanghai or Kiev to offer input for five minutes. But it’s completely absurd.

What could this kind of deceleration look like?

I’m imagining a city society that doesn’t constantly ferry people everywhere. This requires a city of short distances. This, in turn, is achieved by generating much more within the city itself to save on transport routes. And digitalisation of course helps us to save a lot when it comes to distances. For example, Skype technology is improving all the time, so people don’t have to go to every single meeting anymore. An interesting aspect in this is the virtualisation and augmentation of communication. At the moment we are still Skyping via a screen, i.e. a flat surface. But if at some point we have the opportunity to talk to a person on the other side of the world in a virtual space as well as if we were standing next to each other, walking through the lab together and doing things virtually on site, then we wouldn’t need to fly to the other end of the world as often.

You still travel a lot around the world – which city do you think has the best mobility concept?

Mobility is strongly dependent on culture, and aspects such as topography and weather of course also play an important role. Old urban structures, such as narrow streets or old trees, often make a change difficult. Two fantastic examples are Copenhagen and Amsterdam. For one reason in particular: cars are banned from many parts of the city centre and many people ride bicycles. And if you imagine a city without full parking places, you suddenly realise you have a lot of public space available. This is why people in cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam simply spend much more of their time in their public spaces. That’s a huge quality in a city. 

On average, a private car stands still for 23 hours a day in Germany. Can there be any future at all for private vehicles in cities?

My answer is quite clear: no. I still see vehicles being there in the delivery and goods sector, but private cars need to be taken out of city centres. But I see a lot of different small vehicles flowing smoothly. They’re always in motion and hardly ever stand still. Mobility on demand, i.e. combining different vehicles, will be the new trend. This is crucial in my opinion. This way, we can reduce the space needed for parking and people can move around more smoothly. And I also believe that in future the automotive industry will no longer build cars in the true sense of the word, but will develop new business models based on these different vehicles, which are of course primarily data producers. The future of the automotive industry will involve new business models based on a lot of new data. However, it is important to me that not all the data goes to the companies. This is still a big problem at the moment. Cities are dependent on technical innovations and the help of companies. However, the data must remain accessible to all citizens in the city.

What do you expect traffic in a major European city to be like in 2030? What mix of traffic will there be? What role will utopian-looking solutions such as fully autonomous vehicles and air taxis play, even now?

As I said, I can only see a few classic vehicles in the delivery and goods sector and, above all, vehicles moving smoothly. I don’t see there being air traffic, at least not on a large scale. We have a tendency to pack traffic into the air because we drive too many vehicles on earth. But moving them all to the sky can’t be the solution. I believe that air transport is ultimately too expensive and is becoming more of an exclusive means of transport for wealthy people. Aside from all this, I’ll get back to my original point: I see deceleration. I see people walking and cycling more again, but generally moving less.

About Prof. Dr. Gesa Ziemer

Prof. Gesa Ziemer is Professor of Cultural Theory and Cultural Practice, Vice President of Research at HafenCity University Hamburg and Head of the City Science Lab. HafenCity University and the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts are both involved in this, researching the future of cities and the mobility of tomorrow. The research group works on agent-based models and citizen participation tools relating to the topic of mobility. MIT has developed the Persuasive Electric Vehicle, an autonomous bicycle and transport vehicle. Gesa Ziemer is also a member of the steering committee Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) that researches the science of the city of Hamburg.

Micro Mobility

For short distances, even the smallest electric vehicles offer an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to cars. Vehicles such as electric scooters or hoverboards will soon be allowed to drive legally on German roads as well. In order to take this development into account, the upcoming Hypermotion is setting up a Micro Mobility obstacle course where suppliers will present their light vehicles for passenger and freight traffic: in addition to monowheels and Segways, e-bikes, cargo bikes and e-scooters can also be tried out.

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