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23.02.21 Taking sustainability to the streets Interview with Jutta Deffner • Reading time: 7 min.

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Dr. Jutta Deffner, head of the mobility and urban spaces research unit at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research

What can people do to make mobility greener? Dr. Jutta Deffner is head of the mobility and urban spaces research unit at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt. We talked to her about the e-bike success story, Germans’ car addiction, and how mindsets need to change to propel the transition to green mobility.

You argue that the transition to green mobility must be part of a broader societal transformation. What do you mean?

Green mobility isn’t just about new technologies, means of transport, infrastructure, and energy sources. Simply reimagining Germany’s 47 million passenger vehicles as electric cars isn’t enough. Social practices have to change as well. There are several key questions. How can traffic and mobility be planned multimodally? How can different modes of transport be used in a way that makes sense for everyday life? And what role do different forms of mobility play?

Germans love their car. Does this mindset need to change?

Dr. Jutta Deffner: "Ein Drittel aller Haushalte in den Städten hat heute schon kein Auto mehr."
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Jutta Deffner: "A third of urban households in Germany don’t have a car, and not just for economic reasons."

The existing infrastructure makes people in Germany very car-dependent. Multimodality, by contrast, would enable people to leave their car in the garage more. This will take a significant transformation – including in people’s minds.

How much influence do individuals have on the transition to green mobility?

Infrastructure won’t change unless behavior changes. Admittedly, a single individual has little impact. But city dwellers already have access to multimodality. They can walk, cycle, take public transport, participate in car and bike sharing, and use micromobility services like e-scooters.

Which mode is right for which purpose?

For many purposes a car is very convenient. But searching for a parking space, getting stuck in a traffic jam, and other aspects of driving are stressful. People should explore different choices and consider their respective advantages. For example, public transport and biking may take longer, but they enable me to read the newspaper or get some exercise. It’s not always just about whether cars are faster or, seemingly, cheaper.

How can society’s attitude be changed?

It’s obviously not easy. But people have demonstrated that they’ll try new things. E-bikes, for example, are the success story of e-mobility. Without government subsidies or public awareness campaigns. It simply happened. People may have tried an e-bike while on vacation and then decided to integrate it into their daily lives. The trend was initiated by the bicycle and tourism industry. Many tourist regions offer multi-day public transport tickets. These could also be offered for multimodal solutions, including car and bike sharing.

What else can be done?

There should be incentives. If people decide to get rid of their car or bike to work, these behaviors need to be rewarded. Conversely, there should be negative incentives for environmentally surly behavior.

For example?

Cars are given a lot of space in residential areas, both when parked and in motion. To reclaim some of this space, parking opportunities on public streets should become scarcer and more expensive.

Do transport choices have an emotional aspect?

Definitely. The car industry is built on emotions. A car is vehicle for conveying four to five people. But it’s marketed as an expression of personal freedom: a lone car driving along an empty road in a beautiful landscape. It’s an image that doesn’t correspond to reality.

Are young peoples’ attitude toward cars changing?

A third of urban households in Germany don’t have a car, and not just for economic reasons. Many people younger than 30 don’t consider a car a status symbol anymore. It’s also not necessarily practical. That’s the key: green mobility isn’t about banishing cars. It’s about finding way for cars to be used where they’re particularly practical. Ideally, without requiring ownership.

What about rural areas?

Individual behavior change without support structures is hard. Rural areas need better public transport, better vehicle sharing options, and good infrastructure for biking and walking. Policymakers need to allocate more funds to such services, including in rural areas.

You’ve said that countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are much further along. How long do you think it will take for Germany to catch up, both on the ground and in people’s minds?

The next ten years will bring a great deal of change. In fact, it has already begun. Young people in big cities are already realizing that they don’t need to own a car to meet their mobility needs. Their mobility decisions influence other people. Socialization is a decisive factor. Children who grow up in a two-car household will likely tend to perpetuate this pattern. Obviously, some people are afraid of something being taken away from them. For example, steps to reduce traffic flow and parking spaces meet with opposition. This response is a symptom of insecurity, and traffic planners need to address it. Some changes have to happen quickly so that the improvement is tangible.

What will mobility look like in ten years?

Ideally, there will be a diverse mix of private and shared transport, walking and cycling, and small and micro e-vehicles. And fewer motorized vehicles. Why do so many families in Germany have two cars? Many second cars are company cars, which account for about 60% of new vehicle registrations in Germany. That needs to change. People tend to choose a bigger company car – including SUVs – than they would if they were buying their own car.

What else can people do as individuals, besides changing their mobility behavior?

Talking about green mobility helps: among family members, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors.

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