New Mobility: Can Munich Still Avoid Total Gridlock?

Traffic in German cities is constantly on the rise. Particularly in the boomtown Munich, gridlock is already a reality. And yet Munich has all the tools for tackling the challenge. The years ahead will be decisive for the future of mobility. An editorial.

A solution for traffic problems is in sight: air taxis. On every comedy stage and at every regulars’ table, you can count on getting laughs as soon as you say the word ‘air taxi.’ Ever since former German Minister of State for Digitalization Dorothee Bär said in a ‘Heute Journal’ news broadcast in March 2018 that digitization means more than infrastructure and broadband expansion — and that we also need to think about topics like autonomous driving and air taxis, air taxis have become a German meme. It confirmed the beliefs of many: that high-brow politicians worry about pipe dreams instead of real needs, or it justified other’s reflex to avoid innovation or their technophobia. Air taxis! That’s something we’ve never needed.

Who even needs something like that?

How the topic of air taxis is handled is indicative of the discussion about solving traffic problems in German cities. New technical approaches are examined in an inquisition-like manner as to how they might solve all the problems — #e-scooter. And of course they won’t, because not all commuters will get to work by air taxi or e-scooter in the future. And maybe these solutions really are going down the wrong track. Only time will tell.

A similarly venomous tone was heard roughly ten years ago in the public debate about introducing free-floating carsharing, a carsharing concept in which the cars can be parked in any parking lot. Who even needs something like that?

With the same absoluteness with which technical innovations are demonized and ridiculed, bicycles are held up as the savior of mobility in cities of the future. If only everyone would simply ride bikes — all our problems would be solved. The way some Munich cyclists ride their bikes expresses their sense of being on a mission: Get out of the bike lane, I’m saving the world!

Impending standstill

The entire debate has a very German and very harsh slant to it. But it also can’t be disputed that something needs to change quickly. Taking a look at the figures reveals the dimension of the problem: In 2005, 667,977 cars were registered in Munich. In late 2018, there were 832,524. That is a 25.6 percent increase. The number of inhabitants in Munich increased by 16.8 percent over the same period from 1,259,677 to 1,471,508. In other words, Munich has grown significantly in recent years, but the number of cars has grown a whole lot more. By 2040, city administration expects a further increase in the number of residents by roughly one quarter to 1,85 million. Add to that an ever-increasing number of commuters from the surrounding area. Every day, more than 400,000 people drive from outside Munich to their workplace in the city. That is more than any other German city. In short: If everything continues as usual, it won’t be long before nothing works at all.

It is going to get even more crowded and cramped in Munich

Munich is no longer the village of millions that it probably never was, but is instead a hightech metropolis whose global influence will continue to grow. Appropriate mobility is a basic prerequisite, regardless of economic success, for maintaining the quality of living for Munich residents. Solving the problem will require a healthy portion of pragmatism. What we do not need is identity-based trench warfare among individuals whose entire existence is defined by how they get from point A to point B: car fanatics, combat cyclists or militant pedestrians.

The space needs to be reorganized and different interests and needs have to be taken into account. Patronizing behavior and bans do not serve a cosmopolitan metropolis well. Offers are needed instead: New and ideally free parking garages at the subway stations for regular users of Munich’s MVV public transportation. A suburban railway that is so dependable that commuters are happy to leave their cars at home. ‘Multi-modal’ mobility beyond the city center, such as MVG (Munich Transport Corporation) rental bikes in the surrounding area to get to suburban railway stations. More MVG railway lines over and underground. More bus lanes. Wider, safer bike lanes. Safer sidewalks for pedestrians where kids can move freely and are out of harm’s way from cyclists and scooters. Parking spaces for e-scooters. More of everything. None of this is new and it is going to cost a lot of money. Before the 1972 Olympics, an enormous amount of effort was invested to bring the Munich transportation network up to current-day standards. We now need another huge effort of the same dimension.

And some will obviously have to give things up: Parking spaces for cars will give way to something else. Cyclists will have to learn to brake for the more vulnerable. We all need to get used to the fact that it is going to get more crowded and cramped in Munich.

New mobility needs new solutions

Munich has a decisive advantage: As a hightech city, startup hub and home to excellent universities and research institutions, Munich can become an open air lab for new, smart and digital mobility solutions. Within the framework of the project ‘Smarter Together,’ new solutions for smart cities have already been tested in Munich. In early 2021, the innovation and startup center Munich Urban Colab plans to open on Leonrodplatz. It is where scholars, startups and established companies will collaborate on new solutions in the fields of mobility, living and working, artificial intelligence and energy supply.

Munich just recently beat out Berlin and Hamburg as the new venue for the IAA. With its departure from Frankfurt, the former automotive trade show plans to completely reinvent itself to evolve into a mobility platform. Munich’s selection also affirms the innovative strength of the city when compared to other big German cities. Moreover, the IAA has the potential to send decisive signals for transforming Munich into a smart city.

The German federal government is also counting on Munich as a model for new mobility. Federal Minister of Transport Andreas Scheuer has announced plans to build a mobility center in Bavaria’s capital city. As reported by the newspaper Münchner Merkur, 500 million euros of federal funding are to be invested in the
“German Center for Mobility of the Future.” Scheuer told the paper:

“We have many creative minds, exceptional initiatives, scholars, startups, industry and SMEs. Now we need a bold plan that connects it all with global appeal that is unique in Europe. The new center will use new technological possibilities to figure out how people want to be mobile in the future and how goods are transported.”

To keep Munich from being crushed by the results of its growth, a lot needs to be done right in the near future: That includes massive infrastructure development, reorganization of public spaces that takes account of Munich residents and the testing of new technological possibilities. And part of the solution might just be air taxis.