Rethinking urban mobility

The Morgenstadt Initiative is researching what the sustainable and livable city of the future might look like. Fraunhofer Institutes, private companies and municipal governments are working together on the initiative. Dr. Natalie Pfau-Weller and Dr. Florian Hermann sat down for an interview to talk about the interdisciplinary project, where networking and cooperation are at the very top of the agenda.

Ms. Pfau-Weller, what is Morgenstadt?

Natalie Pfau-Weller: Our research and specific projects are designed to help cities become less noisy, produce fewer emissions and improve quality of life. We also want to help make cities more robust in the face of climate change or help them with digitalization.

Mr. Herrmann, what role will mobility play in the city of the future – and thus in the overall concept of your research initiative?

Florian Herrmann: To develop the urban systems of the future, we focus on a wide range of subjects, such as energy, water, innovation, finances or digitalization. Mobility plays a crucial role in this context. People want to be mobile and will remain so, but this poses serious challenges to urban structures, particularly in the face of strong population growth.

What do you mean?

Hermann: We need to make sure the needs of people are the focus for urban spaces. When it comes to developing sustainable mobility solutions, this means individual travel in a car is only one part of a larger whole. At the same time, new solutions are available such as car sharing or on-demand services, which can be seamlessly integrated into public transportation services, providing mobility holistically, efficiently and comfortably.

Could you explain a bit more?

Pfau-Weller: One of our projects uses the so-called City Lab approach. The Morgenstadt Innovation Network was launched in 2012. We first looked at six pioneers for the city of tomorrow. We analyzed Freiburg, Copenhagen, New York, Berlin, Singapore and Tokyo on site and used these six examples to create a holistic analytical tool for sustainable urban development. We have since applied the methodology to several cities around the world and are constantly adjusting it.

Herrmann: For example, Germany’s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) invited us to set up a City Lab in the south Brazilian city of Joineville late last year, where we made a fundamental analysis of mobility in the city. The goal was to develop a more sustainable mobility concept.

What is the Morgenstadt Initiative?

How did you go about doing it?

Pfau-Weller: The first step was to look at the city’s existing plans, do online research for indicators and thus get ready for our on-site phase. Then our researchers conducted interviews over a two-week period, toured the city extensively and organized two workshops. In the process, we talked with local and regional authorities, researchers, citizens’ groups, transport companies, associations, power suppliers and conservation advisors. The process generated a road map which in this case involved approximately 25 project ideas.

Ideas are always good – but were the results put into practice?

Herrmann: Ten projects received closer evaluation and were carried out over time. One idea was a Park & Ride station for cars and bicycles, where users could transfer to express buses to reduce individual traffic in the city. Bus stations will expand into mobility hubs that also offer carsharing or bike sharing systems. Citizens will be able to use the services with a special transport pass; a simplified fee system will also make public transportation more attractive. Charging stations will be installed in empty buildings for freight transport with electric trucks and bikes to help reduce pollution and noise in the town center. An online platform for co-creation and an open data platform are being created where stakeholders can share mobility data.

What are the factors are needed for a City Lab to work?

Pfau-Weller: An important factor is not to rush in with our ideas but build on what is already working and listen to the local stakeholders. Many municipal employees know the exact weak points of their city but for several reasons cannot create enough pressure to change things on their own. If they can take part in research projects like this one, things are different. Our view from outside and our experience with many best-practice projects also help classify ideas and carry them out. Another factor: We also make sure our teams work with native speakers as often as possible to eliminate any linguistic or cultural barriers.

What are the biggest barriers when it comes to changing mobility in a city?

Pfau-Weller: There are often legal hurdles, such as data protection regulations. Public administrations often think in silos. Employees often think only about their duties and departments, not about the big picture. Budgets are also often a problem. Municipal finances are notorious for being stretched thin, while also being confronted with immediate and long-term tasks that demand funding. The added value of new technologies that might only pay off after few years is not viewed as very important. Regional or federal support programs are thus an opportunity to try out innovative technologies and concepts.

You mentioned data security. Do many projects focus on it?

Herrmann: Of course – and will continue to do so. Citizen need to be protected from the negative effects of (forbidden) data usage while also utilizing the potential of granting all stakeholders and communities access to the same data. Being able to evaluate road user data can make traffic control systems more intelligent. In certain constellations, users can release their data and receive discounted services in return, such as for public transportation. This very important topic is the subject of our new project called “The Value of Urban Data”.