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Transportation of tomorrow

Klaus Esterluss
March 4, 2019

What will climate-friendly traffic look like in the future? Social scientist Andreas Knie believes that people won't own cars, will fly much less and use electric public transportation.

A car is in a driveway being electrically charged
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Harms

For anyone who relies heavily on a car to get around, the idea of parking up for good might sound like an impossibility. But Andreas Knie, a researcher at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, firmly believes digitization will improve access to communal electric transportation, which in turn will allow many people to ditch their cars. He's already given up on his.

DW: More and more people live in cities and the streets are becoming increasingly full. How can we achieve green transportation while still ensuring that people can get where they need to go?

Andreas Knie: The famous city planner and architect Le Corbusier once said that a city is always an hour big. One of the factors that defines a functioning city is how we get from A to B, and that's a problem for most of them, especially megacities in South America, Africa and Asia. European cities perform better because they're not as big and they have a good infrastructure base; stable public transport and rail networks.

Does that mean the future will be a mix of road and rail traffic?

The magic formula is a combination of several means of transportation. But whether I want to be driven, drive myself, whether I'm traveling with children or carrying luggage, we need access to the right means of transportation without having to rely on our own vehicles.

Social scientist Andreas Knie from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Social scientist Andreas Knie says public transport will be electric and communalImage: DW/K. Esterluß

The way things are now, people prefer to drive themselves. In Berlin, there are regular traffic jams, but only one person in each car. 

The car offered the promise of freedom. I didn't have my own bedroom, but my own car. That has changed completely, and there are now so many cars that they've lost their exclusive character. These days, we see three people driving to the city together in one car, instead of five people in five cars. We have to get that message out there using digital platforms.

But we're not there yet, are we?

We are. The idea has already arrived in cities. Uber is a good example; other services are also exploding. The problem is commuters who have routines and don't want to think about transportation. Because they have to organize their children, and their cars are right outside their front doors, it's easier for them not to check and see if anyone wants a ride. That's why no one does it. But in the new world, your smartphone shows you where you can pick someone up or where you can hop into someone else's car.

View of a parking lot with various electric cars being charged
Public transport must be explored to become fit for the future. This happens here, at the science center BerlinImage: DW/K. Esterluß

Assuming this actually happens, what kind of vehicles will we be using? 

A combination of classic, large vehicles that drive from hub to hub, most of which are connected by rail tracks, either between cities, within a city or from the outskirts to the city center. This already works well in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. We're not talking about combustion engines though; these vehicles will be electric.

Read more: How soon till we all fly in electric planes?

So, the future is electric? Even taking into account the additional resources, precious metals and the batteries that will need to be built?

Transportation requires resources. Vehicles have to be produced and fuel has to be organized. At the moment, we have battery technology for distances of between 50 and 70 kilometers (around 30 to 45 miles) and fuel cells for long distances. They also require resources. But you have to compare it to what we have right now. Combustion engines use a lot of resources and a catalyzer contains incredible amounts of very fine metals that nobody cares about. But when we start talking about batteries, everyone suddenly pays attention.

Will we fly as much in the future as we do today?

If we want to protect the climate, we basically can't afford to fly anymore. In Germany, domestic flights don't make sense. We have alternatives, particularly trains. But European and trans-Atlantic flights are problematic. We won't be able to give them up, but we can limit them. Our proposal is to grant everyone three round trips per year. Those who need more could perhaps buy the rights from others who never fly. The issue of how much transportation we can afford will dominate the agenda in the coming years.

How long will it take before we see a transportation transformation?

We don't know yet but the technologies already exist. Let's take the example of a flying ban. If, by way of example, we were to announce this March that flying would be banned from next March, I believe it would work perfectly. People would have time to adjust and would see that it works. It would soon be adopted everywhere else, and we would save a vast quantity of climate-damaging gases.

The interview was conducted by Klaus Esterluss and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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