Imagining a Car-Free Future: A Guest Article by Katja Diehl

Image of a smiling Katja Diehl standing with a jacket on, featuring watermark logos of Bernstein and Wunder.

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Katja Diehl is a Hamburg-based mobility expert and podcast host with a background in journalism and marketing. She works as a business and communications consultant for She Drives Mobility and is passionate about promoting diversity within the mobility industry.

Katja wants to create a more efficient, sustainable transport system that will benefit all of society. We asked Katja to share her opinions on the current state of mobility in Hamburg and the rest of Europe, as well as her suggestions on how we can improve.

Headshot of Katja Diehl

Who really controls our cities?

For the duration of my 20-year-long professional career, I’ve focused my work on mobility and logistics - that is to say, I’ve focused my work on the strategic movement of people and goods. I’ve personally never owned a car, but even so, I’ve always had the feeling that something’s just not right about the way our cities are designed, and that feeling has grown more intense by the day. The way our cities are built is unfair to different groups - people and pedestrians have been forced to give up more and more of their freedom as the years go on. I was born in the 70s, and since then, I’ve gotten used to the fact that every street I bike or walk down has at least one strip of space dedicated exclusively to parking spots for big, gas-powered, privately owned cars. To make matters worse, these cars are typically only being driven around for a maximum of forty-five minutes a day - and by one person only.

I live in Hamburg, Germany. I recently moved to a relatively quiet part of town called Eimsbüttel. Every time I look down from my balcony at the street below, I have a clear bird’s eye view of how many spots we’ve handed over to parked cars - and without charging them for it, too! One of my friends made a poignant statement to me recently: “that has to change - it’s not like I’m allowed to leave my couch lying around on the street, either.” And it’s true, we need these images to clearly see how much of a problem this topic has become. We’re used to this being the status quo. We grew up never thinking to question the logic behind it. Kids who live in tall apartment buildings in Hamburg call the parked cars “the ants”: they shout that word happily when they line up behind their teacher while out on a field trip, pointing at the swarms of parked cars everywhere and laughing. They have to stand in rows of two when they walk down the sidewalks, because the sidewalks are often so skinny compared to the space we allocate to cars, there’s barely enough space for them to get by. Giant SUVs line the streets, barely fitting into parking spots designed for much smaller vehicles in the 1950s.

A few months ago, everyone was talking about Elon Musk’s Cybertruck. Tesla created a fully electric pickup truck designed to compete with its classic gas-powered American counterparts. Lots of Germans laughed at the primitive-looking monstrosity, but you know what? The Cybertruck is the visual representation of how I feel when I’m riding my bicycle in the city and being passed by a large car: I’m sharing the road with vehicles that are often only driven by one person and protected with steel frames. I don’t have that, but I don’t want to be forced to protect myself with safety vests, barriers and bike helmets - many more drivers get head injuries than cyclists, and yet we’re the ones that have to wear helmets. We can only hope to save lives if we give cyclists their own bike lanes. Period.

The quality of life in cities only increases when we take space away from cars. Where else is all that space supposed to come from? Most of the cars in cities are parked more than they’re driven, so when we take those parking spots away, we’re giving space to everyone else. We think car-free downtowns in cities like Madrid and Barcelona are great ideas, we love “bike cities” like Copenhagen and when we’re there, we enjoy being in a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city. But when it comes to our own cities, this vision of a car-free city suddenly becomes a restrictive one. I think doing away with cars should be seen as a win for everyone who cares about the health and happiness of their fellow city-dwellers. Ever since I was born, I’ve been breathing in toxic fumes from people who refuse to get rid of their cars. My health is being hurt by a transport system that destroys our environment, endangers the lives of others and creates massive traffic jams.

Imagine a small child, a three-year-old living in my neighborhood of Eimsbüttel. Everywhere she turns, all she sees are the steel bodies of cars all around her. She has to navigate through empty gaps between parked cars before carefully trying to cross the street, even in residential areas. She learns that every time she exits her parents’ car, they take her hand and warn her of the dangers of running into the street without looking both ways. Do we want our kids to grow up afraid? Do we want to drive our children to kindergarten every day? Or do we want them to grow up confident, and give them the chance to move freely through the streets of Hamburg? Let’s question the status quo and increase our quality of life in the process. Buying and driving a car doesn’t equal that pure sense of freedom anymore - you know, that lifestyle the auto industry still likes to promote in its advertisements.

People are almost slavishly attached to keeping things the same way they’ve always been, and no one is questioning if we have good reasons for doing things this way. That’s where we start talking about our “stance” on mobility: we don’t seem to be comfortable with getting started and making changes right away, we’re waiting for the distant future, we’re assuming that the giant hamster wheel of growth and profit will continue to turn and solve our problems for us. Of course this system has been set in place for many years, but that’s what created the climate crisis in the first place. We need to seriously ask ourselves what we’re doing with the time that has been given to us.

We NEED to adjust our coordinate system. If we don’t, we won’t just lose our overview, but in a worst-case scenario, we’ll start going in the wrong direction: backwards. That’s the feeling I had about mobility in 2019 in general. It’s not that nothing happened, it just wasn’t nearly enough. Big players either left the market entirely or decided to pause expansion for multiple years to “prevent losses”. But will real mobility changes be possible without spending some money? Isn’t saving our planet through sustainable mobility “paid for” insomuch that it provides an ecological benefit to our society?

I’ve spoken to quite a few people about ‘my 2019’. People ask me how difficult it must be to fight for new mobility changes while also trying to make the industry more diverse and creating new jobs in the process. Isn’t that a bit much to try and do all at once? I nod in response: yup. It’s really, really difficult. But I don’t know how I could separate these concepts from one another. New and shared mobility vs. driving your own car is a huge topic right now, and one that gets brought up all the time when I visit my parents in the countryside. There aren’t any good buses and trains where they live, but there are also few people who are interested in investing in public transportation. Individual mobility options are always just around the corner, and there are never any traffic jams.

Mobility has to change in medium- and small-sized cities and towns as well. That’s when we come back to the topic of having a “stance” - whenever someone suggests changing something that’s been around for a long time, the idea will be met with resistance. Forbidding people to do things and doing away with stuff is never a popular topic: we care about having the freedom to choose and we don’t want our privileges to be taken from us because we see them as a given. We need to ask lots of questions about how we want to design the society of the future, and we need to start building that society today. That starts with the manufacturers who produce cars and other types of mobility companies.

What does this mean for existing laws?

We’re going to need new regulatory frameworks to make mobility changes possible. In new road traffic regulations (and in part of the Passenger Transportation Act), “weaker” mobility groups are explicitly being protected, which leaves more room for trial and error. That sounds very vague, but it basically just means that there’s room for experimentation, which could also lead to the end of private car usage. New concepts like on-demand ridepools (integrated into public transportation) should be introduced as a permanent concept and then expanded upon after gathering feedback from users. The Berlin Mobility Law is the first of its type in Germany, and although scientists, city officials and politicians alike are on-board with the concept, it actually has its roots in civil society. The people of Berlin decided, in a classic ‘bottom-up’ approach, that mobility in Berlin had to be improved upon, and then the politicians took action on that.

Throughout Europe, politicians have decided they don’t want to return to the way things were “post corona”: they want to use the crisis to change mobility for the better. Brussels has reacted with surprising swiftness by barring cars from inner cities, and Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo has been building out a sustainable version of that idea for many years already: streets are being redesigned to be entirely car-free, and the banks of the Seine are being turned into sandy beaches and attractive places to hang out and walk around. The Viennese vice-mayor, Birgit Hebein, is also creating “cool streets”, which are wider, tree-lined streets designed as relaxing areas for people who don’t have balconies or much space in their own apartments - and they help keep the city cool, too. These are exciting times, and there are lots of opportunities out there for politicians to create added value for the new mobility revolution.

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