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New mobility: Interview with futurologist Dr Stefan Carsten

Dr Stefan Carsten is a futurologist and urban geographer. In his work, he combines the issues of the future, cities and mobility.

Dr Stefan Carsten

In an article on mobility after the coronavirus for the Zukunftsinstitut, you refer to a “major transformation in mobility” that has been under way for quite some time. What does this mean for you and, in your view, what role will E-Bikes and E-Cargo bikes play in the mobility of tomorrow?

Overall, I always refer to three paradigms that summarise the future of mobility. First of all, autonomous individual mobility, the continuation of individual car culture. Secondly, seamless mobility, the networking of different modes of transport with the public transport network as the backbone. And thirdly, active lifestyles, involving active, healthy and silent mobility based on bike and pedestrian traffic.

This last element, in particular, has really picked up steam during the corona crisis: Milan, Paris, London and Brussels are cities that have very intensely reflected these paradigms and are now redesigning public roads to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. These cities are thus following a development that has already been initiated by their inhabitants: they are increasingly relying on bikes – despite insufficiently safe cycle paths and rising numbers of traffic accidents between cars and cyclists.

This also applies to cities, the topography of which is not ideal for cycling. Electric motors diminish the significance of these geographic features. E-Bikes and E-Cargo bikes have thus proved themselves as a guarantee of straightforward, healthy and active mobility in towns and in the countryside. I see no end in sight to this development.

What is your view of the relationship between mobility, urban space and quality of life? How might this interplay develop in light of modern technology and ongoing digitalisation?

Urban quality of life has been adopted as the mission statement of many cities competing with each other to be the most attractive. Cities have become increasingly active, forging ahead with reconstruction to be fit and attractive for the academic middle class. In this process, Andreas Reckwitz (Professor of General Sociology and Cultural Sociology at Humboldt University of Berlin) sees the society of singularities taking effect in urban spaces. This spans from this world to individual mobility based on digitalisation and automation. The danger for cities that do not accommodate the world of active lifestyle and fail to shape this future is that they will be steamrollered by the paradigm of individual autonomous mobility. The path dependencies and forces of automotive stakeholders are too strong here. At the same time, however, the opportunities presented by automation, namely the drastic reduction in the number of accidents, are very tempting.

Many cities, towns and communities are currently undergoing a massive upheaval. What measures do you feel need to be taken to ensure that urban spaces are worth living in? Where do you see offshoots of our urban future even now?

The corona crisis was basically like a lens for many cities, which revealed the kind of future we want to live in. Regions with poor air quality were hit particularly hard by Covid-19. The blue sky due to low emissions from industry and traffic, was synonymous with sustainable development, which more and more stakeholders are wishing for. This involves driving forward this development in cities: dismantling roads, reducing parking spaces while at the same time facing rising costs. It also includes building more cycle paths, at the same time separating routes throughout the city, better networking of modes of transport, for instance through integrated offers, “all-inclusive mobility” as it is known, to provide the suburbs and rural areas with new alternatives as well. Mobility hubs focus different options in a given space – in city centres and in the outskirts too. And of course, there is the nationwide introduction of electric mobility for all modes of transport: cars, bikes, buses and lorries, so that residents can at least live locally emission-free.

What challenges do you feel policy-makers face in the field of mobility?

What future do we want? What city or region do we want to live in? Shifting our mindset is difficult in a country where cars define our culture. There are actually no good examples of the future of mobility in Germany. But there are many examples of the future of car mobility. We need to abandon this course to enable mobility for all. It will require equal rights in terms of infrastructure and public investment. The decisions involved in the stimulus package are positive in this respect.

Multimodality also needs to be promoted. Transporting bikes on public transport is still difficult. We need new solutions for bike transport, on underground trains, buses and even cars. After all, combining modes of transport is how we move away from a transport policy focussed solely on cars.

Why is a new form of mobility in the best interests of the economy and how can it contribute to a healthy development?

The Mayor of Milan said the following about Milan’s new direction: “We have been working for years to reduce car use. If everyone drives, there is no space left for people, no space for moving about and no space for commercial activities outside of shops. Of course, we want to open up business again, but we should do so differently to before.” A healthy city takes pressure off the healthcare sector – a city that gives priority to cycling strengthens the retail sector and urban life and is attractive to companies. Business, in turn, needs to consider new approaches. Does it need cars to incentivise employees or do bikes or mobility packages not achieve the same goal? However, at the very least, it needs to rely on clean mobility, that is electric mobility.

How do you get around in urban (networked) spaces?

I live in the centre of Berlin, in the Mitte district. I counted, there are supposedly 30 different mobility options available here. Nowhere else can compete. That is extreme mobility – and that’s how I get around. I cycle, walk, take the underground or tram, car share or take my own car. Depending on the situation, context and my destination. Mobility thus becomes a game and becomes pure enjoyment.