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Michael Adler on sustainable mobility in Germany

For 16 years, Michael Adler has been managing director of ‘fairkehr’ publishing and editor-in-chief of the magazine of the same name, representing Germany’s ecologically sound automobile association, the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD). In this interview, he explains how mobility ought to change in Germany to become truly fit for the future.

The Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) works as a non-profit environmental association. Since 1986, it has advocated ecologically sound transport policies. Michael Adler is editor-in-chief of ‘fairkehr’, the VCD magazine on the environment, transport, leisure and travel, and for many years he has been addressing the ‘future of mobility’. He is also the founder and owner of ‘tippingpoints – the agency for sustainable communications’.

Why did you choose to specialise in the topic of mobility?

Michael Adler: With hindsight, I’d say it happened rather by chance. My aim was to get more involved in environmental issues. I might as easily have ended up with Greenpeace or the Öko-Institut, but at the time ‘fairkehr’ was advertising a position. That’s not to say I wasn’t already interested in the subject of mobility. But with that job, of course, it became more important to me.

What interests you about mobility?

Michael Adler: I’ve been editor-in-chief of ‘fairkehr’ for 16 years now and the subject has never bored me, even for a single day. I’m fascinated by the reasons why people move, by how quickly and how often they move, and how they feel when they do so – whether it’s by train or car or bike, or on foot.

Are there any other subjects that are particularly important to you?

Michael Adler: Mobility is just one part of the larger debate surrounding sustainability. Above all it’s about how our children and grandchildren can continue to live good lives in the future. Sustainable mobility alone will not be enough to achieve this. Topics like energy, travel and consumption are every bit as important. All these things are tied together.

Book tip: Generation Mietwagen

In his book ‘Generation Mietwagen’ (‘Car Rental Generation’, not available in English), Michael Adler looks at the reorientation of many Germans, away from car ownership and towards a new form of mobility. He explains why such new thinking can have a big impact on mobility in the future, and how attractive options like car sharing and ride sharing or bikes-on-demand can be. Pointing to the increasing scarcity of resources, as well as the overloaded transport systems and growing environmental problems, he makes it clear why the development of sustainable mobility is unavoidable.

Sustainable mobility gets little coverage in the media

Do you think that it’s harder to get the general news media to report on green issues than on other stories?

Michael Adler: Definitely. I sometimes feel that many journalists are only interested in the majority. The Greens are just a small party with eight per cent of the vote, so only a small portion of the readers want to know anything about so-called green issues. The large parties are able to play up what are really just side-shows, such as the debate over road-pricing, and then that fills the newspapers – especially when it involves staffing issues.

And always, when there’s no big industry backing an idea, coverage quickly gets dropped. Car sharing has now become a popular topic because providers like Deutsche Bahn and BMW are getting involved. Cycling sometimes comes under the scrutiny of the journalists, too, but ‘walking’ is, as ever, basically ignored as a potential subject. It’s not really an environment topic and it’s not really mobility, and it’s just not big enough to get into the business pages.

What subjects do dominate reporting in the mobility field?

Michael Adler: Above all, of course, the car. It’s still simply THE central topic when anyone talks about mobility. I like reading the Süddeutsche Zeitung. I find its coverage is balanced and they take a clear position. But it still makes me sick to read reviews of the latest SUVs and sports cars in their ‘Mobiles Leben’ (‘Mobile Living’) section. Especially when they use a kind of zoological language, for instance, when a car is compared with a leopard that’s hunting a gazelle across the savannah. But they don’t mention things like a liveable city.

What is a liveable city?

Michael Adler: Jim Walker, founder of the global conference for pedestrians ‘Walk 21’, explained it like this: ‘When, as a family, you don’t want to move away from a place, and when, as an elderly person, you feel comfortable there, then there is something profoundly right about that city.’ In a liveable city, you can be sure it’s barrier-free and that children are safe on the streets. It’s all about redesigning spaces and footpaths and cycle paths, and it’s about having modern public transport.

If you use only a car to move about the streets, you won’t talk to your neighbours any more, and it gets more dangerous for other people on the roads. In a liveable city, people meet each other and get to know one another. This also promotes social cohesion.

Fraunhofer study: Envisioning a sustainable transport system in Germany

The research project ‘VIVER’ is developing a vision for sustainable transport in 2050. Its results show how the emergence of a sustainable transport system will depend on a combination of technological change and changes in people’s heads.

Visions for sustainable transport in Germany

Are there any countries that are more advanced in terms of sustainable mobility?

Michael Adler: In terms of transport policy, that would certainly be the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark. For Germany, it would be really utopian if we used bicycles as much as the Dutch, if we had as little road traffic as Denmark, and if we had trains as reliable and popular as those in Switzerland. Of course, it’s not because of some kind of genetic coding that those countries have made so much progress. They’re just places where, years ago, political decisions were made which have been implemented to the full. After all, a ‘mobility culture’ doesn’t just fall off a tree.

The good news is that cities like New York, London and Paris are now interested in introducing more bicycle lanes and footpaths. They’ve had huge traffic problems for years and are now consciously turning to a different kind of mobility. In comparison with many German cities, while they still have a worse modal share, their ambitions are at least significantly higher.

Why are our ambitions so low?

Michael Adler: I would call it ‘lethargic mediocrity’ – a sense that neither our bicycle lanes and footpaths nor our railways are actually that bad, so we don’t need to change anything. But if we really want to achieve annual CO2 emission levels in the future of just two to three tonnes per person – which is what the climate scientists say is sustainable – we need to make a huge effort. The German car manufacturers have a big influence on this, as we’ve seen with the debate surrounding CO2 limits.

The industry has a direct line to Mrs Merkel, and she supports the interests of the manufacturers, right up to the European level. On top of that, we Germans tend to believe in the state, preferring to wait and see what it does. We form associations to lobby the state. That is important and sometimes successful. But what I often miss are direct actions by people who are ready to go out on the street in the name of a particular cause.

November 2015

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