In the future, it will be increasingly rare for us to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle. We will all use a combination of train, bicycle, car and bus to make our journeys. But what does this “multi-modality” mean for our current understanding of mobility? And what kind of effect will it have on us?
Like all young men of his age, he registered at the driving school of his small town as soon as the legal age for driving dawned on the horizon. 21 driving lessons, endless theory lessons and one sweaty examination later, he finally gripped that big gray card in his hand, the one that Germans casually called the “rag” at the time – it may have been a very large official document that did indeed look like a gray rag, but calling it that was a blatant understatement, given the truly magical aura that the driving license possessed among his peers. “The driving license,” says Frank Wolter, “was an insignia of freedom, independence and adulthood , bar none. That’s why every single one of us youngsters did everything possible to legally qualify to drive a car, exactly on our 18th birthday.”
Today, a move, two children and 25 years later, Wolter usually only gets behind the wheel for shopping or weekend jaunts. Most of the time, his old Golf rusts silently away in front of his Berlin apartment building. He takes the S-Bahn (city train) to work, uses a bicycle or car sharing vehicle for longer distances, and for traveling with the family he uses taxis, planes, trains, or a combination of these. Frank Wolter, 43 years old and a transport researcher at the InnoZ, Berlin Innovation Center for Mobility and Societal Change, is right in line with today’s trend, because the era in which you were either a car owner, cyclist or public transport user, thinking in travel cycle times and the range of “your” means of transport, is coming to an end in many places.
The “intermodal mobility” phenomenon, that slightly awkward name invented by traffic planners, is not actually a movement against the car, but rather a decision for a more pragmatic choice of transport mode. And “transportation hopping” is also not exactly an innovation: in the Middle Ages, a merchant would be driven in a two-horse carriage to the harbor, where he got on a ship and sailed to the next trading post. He would then reach his final destination on horseback. Voilà… intermodal travel!
If you live in the city you can get around very well without a car. If you nevertheless insist on driving, you’ll be beset by an increasing number of restrictions such as environmental zones, city tolls and temporary driving bans, the likes of which are being imposed on smog-contaminated Chinese cities, for instance. City residents are demanding better air, larger green spaces, more comfortable quarters and a higher quality of life – and despite that, they still want to get from A to B fast. So how does that work?
It is quite possible that in a few years, the steering wheel will no longer be the classic circular, plastic-based and sewn-leather type – no, it will allow its users to get from A to B as quickly and as cheaply as possible, regardless of the mode of transport. Today, more than 40 million Germans carry steering instruments like this around with them. The only thing that’s missing is the intelligent software, and that is currently being programmed by the Technical University in Berlin, working jointly with other institutions.
In the “Distributed Artificial Intelligence Laboratory” of this TU, scientists are working on a new route planner that will unite the most diverse transport modes, routes and travel possibilities. Whoever wants to get from A to B will have everything available at a glance, instead of clicking through various apps. Currently, however, the project team “Intermodal Mobility Assistance for Cities” can access the data of only a handful of suppliers. Before more transport companies can join the project, it must be clarified which of the companies involved may manage the customer data and use it for advertising purposes: The platform on which a trip is requested? The mobility provider who carries out the trip? The payment service provider that handles the payment? Or all three?
The long-term goal of the Berlin researchers is a “super app”, where you store your data like driver’s license, payment terms and personal traits just once – and from then on you can see, book and pay for any connection you prefer. With a personal traffic control center like this, surfing by bus, train or car sharing would be as straightforward as starting and steering the private car today. There is one difference however; in many cases, intermodal transport will get you to your destination faster and smarter and you’ll feel more relaxed when you arrive.
Above all, intermodality would mean that road users would get back some of the steering power they sacrifice to public transportation today. Anyone getting into a bus, train or plane is totally at the mercy of the routing – and this feeling of being powerless induces many of us to prefer the steering autonomy of our private cars, although this is definitely illusory when you consider the traffic-clogged streets. Curiously enough, psychological studies show that the loss of autonomy is perceived differently depending on the means of transport. The same passengers who blithely accept hours of waiting and humiliating personal security procedures at the airport complain bitterly about any 5-minute delay on the railroad.
The reason? Flying is obviously still perceived as a superhuman experience without alternatives, one where passengers are grateful when they arrive safely at their destination. Unpopular train travel, however, is considered a permanent imposition. “The constant, loud, openly-expressed annoyance of customers about trains is an attempt to regain their lost autonomy,” analyzes psychologist Stephan Grünwald from the market research company Rheingold in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. And because this is so, widespread train-bashing will remain a national pastime even if the rail network performs almost perfectly. “With their continuous criticism of the rail network, people can overcome that powerless feeling and regain the upper hand by putting the train service firmly in its place.”
However, the same effect could be achieved with a smart app which analyzes the current traffic situation in real time and offers instantly-bookable alternatives, from long-distance buses to car rentals. Intermodality would therefore equate with a sovereign steering feeling, one that only older road users would know from the long-gone era of free and open roads. “Multimodal transportation gives me the freedom to use the ideal vehicle for every occasion. If I want, I can work, surf the Internet, relax and do exactly what I want to do while I’m traveling,” says transport researcher Wolter.
The car is booming, the competition too.
So is it bad times for automotive manufacturers and other transport operators? The answer is no, not at all. Many of them have long since tuned in to the changing habits of their customers and have developed into versatile mobility service providers. The Federal German Railway (Bundesbahn), for example, now offers train tickets combined with car rental (Flinkster), bicycle rental (Call a bike) and its own app (Qixxit), with which you can do all your planning for your journey. The motto here is we don’t care how people travel, as long as they do it with German Railways. The car makers Daimler and BMW have meanwhile established a niche for themselves as car sharing providers with Car2Go and DriveNow respectively. The Stuttgart-based Daimler group also operates an open mobility platform called “Moovel” – and Daimler aims to make it the “Amazon of mobility”. Moovel users should someday even be able to book the strongest competitors of the automobile, from public transport to taxi, rented bicycle, long-distance bus and aircraft. It seems that the classical transport providers are now going along with that well-known adage for strategic competition: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! ”
The forces of persuasion are still on the side of the car in the countryside, where we still press down hard on our gas pedals. The countryside has a lack of attractive travel alternatives – and it’s home to a clientele for whom the private car is just as much a way of life as the sports club and their own homes. While it is mostly the younger generation which is switching to bus, train and bicycle travel, women and senior citizens in particular now drive much more often than they used to; and these are two groups of users who seldom used a car in the past.
When you add up all the statistics, the Germans, with 615.1 billion car kilometers, are currently driving more than ever before.This is why traffic experts are by no means certain that fewer cars will be on the roads in ten or twenty years. One thing is clear, however: There will be more alternatives, with more variation. The global mobility landscape of the future will look just as multi-tracked and inconsistent as our personal travel habits do today. In countries like the USA, where space abounds and public transportation is scarce on the ground, the car is likely to remain number 1 for travel. In the megacities of Asia, however, lack of space and environmental problems will inevitably force people to change their means of travel – and as far as Germany is concerned, the country is likely to lie somewhere in between the US and Asia, both geographically and infrastructure-wise.
Right now, traffic planner Wolter is experiencing the simultaneity of the mobility models close up, in his own family. His mother is one of the first generation of women who acquired a driver’s license. And although he himself has a driver’s license, he hardly needs it. What about his children?
A long version of this text was published in the magazine LENKMOMENTE by Robert Bosch Automotive Steering GmbH.