A Tailwind to Speed Up the Transport Transition

Cars have taken over our cities. They pollute the air and are noisy – but only when they move. Most of them stand on the side of the road 23 hours a day. With 12 square meters, each car park is the size of a bedroom. Cars park on sidewalks, block intersections, and clog city centers. At the same time, illegal parking is regarded as a trivial offense; the police and public officials understandingly turn a blind eye. The chaos on our streets is planned; it is the result of 70 years of transport policy for car-dominated cities, which have sidelined pedestrians and cyclists.

But Germans are growing weary of car dominance. People are fed up with being ruled by politicians who put the profits of fraudulent car companies over the health of their citizens. People are dying because turning assistants for trucks are still not compulsory and protected bike lanes are missing.

At the same time, we are experiencing an astonishing shift in attitudes towards mobility. Citizen initiatives formed in more than a dozen German cities are fighting for a new direction in transport policy and demanding better cycling infrastructure: (protected) bike lanes, safer crossings, parking garages for bicycles, etc. How do politicians respond? Does it make a difference, for instance, if the Green Party governs?

Looking at the Länder level, across Germany’s 16 states, a new orientation of transport policy is emerging. Berlin is so far the only state that has passed a comprehensive mobility law. It aims to give priority to buses, trains and bikes. Even if implementation is slow, Germany’s capital is still a pioneer nationwide.

In Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, a coalition of Greens and Social Democrats adopted a cycling strategy in 2015 and significantly increased the funds for building more sidewalks and bike paths. The successor government of Greens and Conservatives has accelerated this course since 2016. It has strengthened the goals, built bike paths and networked communities. This is quite remarkable for a state that claims to be the cradle of the global car industry and where the Conservative Party sees its role as the car companies’ advocate. This constellation also explains why the state government promotes cycling but simultaneously does whatever it can – from constructing moss walls to developing special asphalt – to let cars roll on undisturbed.

In the northern city-state of Bremen, cycling policy activities have been increasing for several years. The coalition between the Social Democrats and Greens recently set the goal of making their city an international cycling landmark. As a lighthouse project, the coalition promotes a model cycling district, for which the state government has attracted federal subsidies.

Political interweaving, encrusted structures and path dependencies explain why sustainable mobility is only slowly getting out of the starting blocks.

German politicians seem to be waking up. More and more state governments are pursuing an active policy for walking and cycling. But as German sociologist Max Weber once said, politics is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Governments have spent a lot of political capital, but progress so far is minimal. Why is that?

The states cannot just wave a magic wand. Their scope of action is constrained: municipalities are in charge of building bike paths in cities, and the federal government sets the national framework. This interdependence of politics, somewhat typical for Germany’s decentralised federalism, slows things down. But it does not explain why the transport transition is taking so long.

Since World War II, transport policy has focused on spending money to build more roads, bridges, train tracks and airports. Transport policy expanded infrastructure and stimulated growth. For decades, it has been defined by engineers with the ultimate aim of paving the way for more miles traveled in cars. In transport ministries, but above all in road construction administrations, they have become experts who, in turn, hire only experts. So we’re dealing with a cast of specialists: male, car-crazy, and technology-focused. Without ever making a conscious decision, we have assigned these engineers the responsibility of distributing public space. For a long time, these engineers have simply overlooked or purposely blocked many reform approaches. Because civil engineering and road construction departments have considerable discretion when implementing laws, they are like lumbering tankers on which parties and governments have limited influence.

Politicians speak of very different worlds when they enter the door of a ministry. If a Green politician gets appointed Minister for Environment, the staff will mostly expect tailwind for their own work within the governing coalition. A government with Green participation most often treats environmental issues as a top priority. But how different is the experience in transport ministries? The transport administration has been established for decades and has never been completely reorganized like the environmental administration in the 1970s and 1980s. New transport ministers who want to push for a transport transition are viewed with skepticism. And perhaps also classified as a temporary phenomenon to be put up with until another traditional Minister of Transport leads the house.

In coalition negotiations, it has become customary for the Ministry of Transport to be appointed at the end. Why? In the end, it always seems to be given as a consolation prize to the party or politician that has compromised the most. Transport policy has rarely been more than a third wheel.

There is a change in society’s mentality. Most people understand that a city built for people, instead of for cars, offers a better life – without sacrificing mobility.

Even in states like Baden-Württemberg, where the Greens have spent a lot of political capital to promote the transition to more biking and fewer cars, it has taken years for new concepts, laws and budget priorities to arrive on the streets. It’s as though memos are getting lost in the daily paperwork. “There is a lack of will to change,” says Christine Lehmann, about the state capital of Stuttgart. She is a writer, city councilor and renowned expert in municipal cycling policy. Despite having a state government lead by the Greens, a Green Mayor, and a strong citizens’ initiative, cycling in Stuttgart is not treated as a priority. Cycling infrastructure is always built only if road coverings are to be renewed anyway.

System inertia is defined by how difficult it is to change its current state. The greater the inertia, the more difficult it is to change the system. Transport policy is sluggish. Political interweaving, encrusted structures and path dependencies explain why sustainable mobility is only slowly getting out of the starting blocks. But the system’s inertia is starting to give way. Technical developments such as electrification and digitisation enable a new mobility that is cleaner, more convenient and cheaper than the old one. Traffic authorities are facing a generational change that will bring in younger people and more women – and provide them with expertise beyond engineering. Last but not least, there is a change in society’s mentality. Most people understand that a city built for people, instead of for cars, offers a better life – without sacrificing mobility.

However, none of this will happen automatically. Politics must help reach a breakthrough, at the federal level as well. If the federal government initiates a mobility transition, there will be tailwind for state and local officials.  

This article first appeared in German in Böll.Thema 3/19 by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and was published in English by the Green European Journal here.

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