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“No private car can compete with that”

Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG , speaks about the role of mass transit in the livable city of the future, the success of the “Elektrobus” initiative in a series of big German cities, and the dedicated efforts that his company is putting into the development of autonomous mini-buses.

For several decades, many people have been seeing the car as a symbol of personal freedom. What kind of role will the car play in the city of the future?

Well, there is already a clear shift in the ways that people use cars. The car is losing its significance as a status symbol, and society is banking increasingly on sharing concepts instead of ownership. Sharing schemes are gaining ground, and with their ever easier use they are about to turn into a more and more attractive alternative. Optimistic forecasts expect this to lead to lower vehicle quantities in our cities, ideally with only electric-powered models remaining in use. An important condition for this optimistic vision to materialize is the implementation of an extensive mass transit ecosystem. There are also new mobility providers, offering services that do feel almost like using a private vehicle so that even enthusiastic automobilists will not miss owning a car.

How long, in the face of the impending total traffic gridlock and rising environmental pollution, will it probably take until the maximalist demand that civil liberties should include the right to unrestricted driving will have been banished from the motorists’ minds?

At the moment our focus is on reaching out to the motorists and convincing them of the many advantages provided by a combination of public transport and sharing schemes. We want their switch to public transport to be voluntary. This approach requires a lot of sensitivity and communicative skill since we need to address the specific needs of the customers. We continue to improve our service offer, making it ever more attractive. Already today, special bus lanes allow bus passengers to sail past traffic jams – while surfing on the Internet thanks to the free WiFi access provided by the public transport operator. This level of convenience generates substantial motivation for car users to rethink their mobility behavior.

More and more cities are advocating the systematic reclamation and transformation of urban space into a livable green ecosystem. Is our mobile society ready for such strategies yet?

Urban space is limited, hence in short supply and valuable. So surely nobody wants a quite large proportion of this limited commodity to be occupied by stationary, idle vehicles. This is why my answer to your question is YES. However, such a strategy cannot and must not entail mobility restrictions. We are working on an integrated mobility platform that will make it easy for our customers to do without a private car. With this decision they will automatically make a contribution to maintaining a livable green ecosystem. This strategy will only be successful if we succeed in reducing traffic volumes while at the same time delivering more mobility options. Of course, a good and flexible public transport system is an important factor in creating a livable city.

Henrik Falk: “Already today, special bus lanes make it possible for bus passengers to sail past traffic jams – while surfing on the Internet.”

In how far will innovative technologies such as electric-powered mobility and autonomous and connected driving impact the rethinking process over the coming years?

In the field of mass transit, electric-powered mobility is already making big strides. As of 2020, Hamburger Hochbahn will buy only zero-emission electric buses. The fact that the “Elektrobus” initiative founded by Hamburg and Berlin in 2016 has by now been joined by Germany’s most important cities reflects a nationwide shift towards e-mobility. This development is going to make a major contribution to improving the quality of urban life.

In the long term, autonomous and connected driving will open up very promising opportunities for expanding the public transport offer and adding services that are simply not viable today in some geographical areas and during certain off-peak times. In terms of practical applicability, however, these technologies are in the early development phases and still need a lot of testing and pilot projects. With our research and development project HEAT, Hamburger Hochbahn is currently setting out on exploring this field in cooperation with six renowned partners. The aim of the project is to demonstrate, in time for the ITS World Congress 2021, that driverless mini-buses can smoothly integrate in regular traffic. This will only be possible if they can travel at speeds of up to 50 km/h – a world-first and a truly pioneering project. But pioneering work is what we have been doing since 1911, our founding year.

What options do you see for cities to support the deployment of an agile system of small, driverless buses that will pick up the passengers close to their doorstep and score with shorter travel times thanks to high priority within the traffic network?

In the scope of the research and development project HEAT, the city acts not only as a sponsor, but also as a partner. Our vehicles travel on public spaces and use the urban infrastructure, for instance traffic light systems. But one of the main concerns is the clarification of regulatory issues. This is where the city has a major role to play. And in the end, HEAT is the kind of project that needs strong political support.

Autonomous minibus used in the HEAT project: “This is a world-first. Hence this is a truly pioneering project.”

What does your ideal scenario for perfect urban mobility look like for the coming 10, 20 and 30 years?

In the ideal scenario, mobility should become something that does not require much planning on the part of the customer: No wondering anymore if bus, train or a shared car will be the fastest option, or if the bike or the electric scooter would be even better – the optimum choice and combination for the individual case will be recommended by a mobility platform. This means an end to tedious cost comparisons, availability checks and route planning. Mobility will be a no-effort commodity. Hamburg is currently implementing a key pillar for this service with the new “switchh” platform, scheduled to go operational in 2019.

Yet, we cannot imagine a scenario in which mass transit will not form the backbone of urban mobility. Mass transit is not really a charming name for it, but “serving the masses” is just what public transport is about. We are making significant investments in this area, substantially more than in the past. Instead of simply estimating demand and adapting our capacity accordingly, we now focus on supply-driven planning. An important project of this type is the construction of the fully automated subway line U5 allowing a headway of only 90 seconds. No private car can compete with that level of service.

In which ways has your personal mobility behavior changed already – and how will it continue to change?

I combine bike and rapid transit for my daily trip to the office. For longer work-related trips, I sometimes us an electric-powered car. The distance between my office and the city hall is short enough to go on foot. As a family we still have a private car because for some situations in life, for instance weekend activities or weekly grocery shopping, suitable shared-transport schemes are not yet generally available.

For most transport needs, doing without a private car is possible already today.

Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG

Would you consider doing completely without a car of your own in the near future, switching to car-sharing and bike-sharing schemes and/or public transport for your urban mobility needs?

For most transport needs this is possible already today. The backbone of mobility is the mass transit system. This is not going to change in the future. What is needed now are additional sharing schemes for different mobility needs, including new on-demand services that offer a level of convenience similar to that of a private car, but at much lower cost. Once the various mobility services for all situations in life are integrated on one easy-to-use platform, this will constitute a truly competitive alternative to owning a car.

When taking a look into the future of mobility, is your dominant feeling one of loss or gain in personal freedom?

I definitely see a clear gain in personal freedom. Today we need to think too much about the how and when and where of being mobile: I need to decide on the best transport means, check timetables and plan connections to organize my trips. Roads and streets are congested much of the time. Private cars sit idle 23 hours per day, unnecessarily occupying urban space. Mobility commands a good part of our attention. This is not what I’d call personal freedom and high quality of life.

Wouldn’t it be much better if mobility were to become a no-effort commodity? Mobility without timetables, organized via a mobility platform that provides door-to-door offers tailored to the needs of the individual user. Then the private car will become expendable. Less traffic on our streets and roads, less space needed for parking, better air quality, less noise – this is what I call a real gain in personal freedom and quality of life.

Peter Rosenberger, a journalist in Bodman-Ludwigshafen
Picture credits: Hamburger Hochbahn AG