Ways out of the traffic gridlock | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.09.2013
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Ways out of the traffic gridlock

Waiting for a train that is late, or caught in a traffic jam is annoying at best. Researchers forecast a rise in traffic volume in the future, and seek alternative concepts.

"Mobility is a human right - and mobility is by no means synonymous with traffic," Udo Becker, a traffic specialist at Dresden Technical University says. The term mobility may not appear in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, but the right to mobility could possibly be derived from other basic rights. "Mobility is geared to people, how they get to the doctor's office, the university or school, a restaurant, to the movies, or to visit a friend," Becker says.

There is an ongoing discussion about how best to organize such mobility. Clearly, many cities across the globe are already threatened by a traffic breakdown. Commuters on their way to work are trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams because streets can't cope with heavy rush-hour traffic. People who resort to busses and trains are often forced to suffer even longer commutes as public transport can be poorly coordinated or unreliable. Riding a bicycle for shorter trips is not everyone's cup of tea, either: Who wants to arrive for work in the morning sweaty or drenched with rain?

Noise, filth and greenhouse gases

Train at platform Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ / Eingestellt von wa

Exasperation when trains run late

Automobile traffic is a huge problem in cities, and constant traffic congestion is but one of the issues. Noise and harmful substances are a strain on residents, as are greenhouse gases that endanger the climate. It makes no sense at all, says expert Becker to allow "someone who just wants to have coffee to drive into the city with a heavy off-road vehicle and to guarantee that person parking space."

Many German cities have in the meantime introduced limited access to inner cities - low emission zones - for cars that are particularly heavy polluters. However, as only few, mainly older vehicles were excluded, that has had little affect on air pollution. Gas consumption was not considered.

A general inner city toll would also not be very effective to regulate traffic, Michael Schreckenberg says. "It works for a short time, we saw that in Sao Paolo - and then the effect vanishes," the traffic expert at Duisburg-Essen University says. "Afterwards, you're back to the same growth, you're back to square one." According to Schreckenberg, giving people an incentive to switch to other means of transport is a much better option.

Free buses and trains?

Prof. Michael Schreckenberg Copyright Universität Duisburg-Essen

Schreckenberg: Not in favor of inner city tolls

Some countries have already made progress. Estonia's capital Tallin began offering its citizens free public transport in January. Surveys show auto traffic has already gone down by about 15 percent. A similar project introduced in 1975 in Portland, Oregon, was discontinued last year, because the city could no longer shoulder the high costs.

Local public transport is subsidized in Germany but a study shows ticket prices have risen more steeply than the cost of driving a car. The upstart Pirate Party demands free local public transport - but with most cities and communities in debt, the question remains: Who will foot the bill?

The city of Chemnitz is grappling with yet another serious problem, as are many cities in eastern Germany: a severely shrinking population. That makes for a completely different set of problems. In Chemnitz, the city is looking at dismantling streets rather than building new ones. Chemnitz does not have a problem with traffic jams, Pia Sachs of the city administration says. "In fact, we are thinking about narrowing the streets to make the downtown area a bit more compact" - with the goal of making the inner city more attractive as a residential area as well.

Awareness raising campaign

In the framework of the European Mobility Week, held across Europe in mid-September, the city presented citizens with the "Chemnitz model": linking tram and train tracks in an effort to improve connections between the city and the urban surroundings. Trams can use railroad tracks to and from the inner city. Vehicles and stations are for the most part barrier-free, allowing easy access at almost all stops for the aging population in and around the city.

Pia Sachs, Photo: Stadt Chemnitz, 19.09.2013

No traffic snarls in Chemnitz, Pia Sachs says

Becker, however, urges a completely different approach. People are always clamoring for everything to be cheaper and faster, he says - forgetting that this makes traffic attractive. A well-developed traffic infrastructure inevitably leads to people driving to the large supermarket instead of shopping at the small corner store. As a result, the small store closes, and "everyone is forced to drive to the large supermarket. You end up with enforced traffic."

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