The automobile has been an important part of our lives for more than 100 years. But climate change, inner-city gridlock and new types of mobility are gnawing away at its popularity, says //next columnist Don Dahlmann.
Turning 18 traditionally meant two important things in Germany. The first was that you had finally reached the age of majority, and so were free to make your own decisions independently of your parents. But the second, and perhaps more important difference was that you finally were allowed to get your drivers’ licence. And that meant both freedom and independence.
But times have changed. The number of newly issued drivers’ licences has been falling steadily for years. According to the Federal Motor Vehicle Registry, the number of 18- to 20-year-old drivers in Germany fell from 5.1 million to 4.4 million between 2010 and 2019. And that figure even includes all the limited drivers’ licences for mopeds only.
The automobile is simply no longer the most important means of transportation for people, especially if they live in a large city. More and more hours spent in traffic, never-ending searches for a parking space, and increasing costs associated with car ownership are all causing people to seek alternatives. And there are now more than enough of those.
For example, car-sharing is an attractive idea, particularly in densely populated areas. It allows people to rent a car for a few days or even just a few minutes. Users pay no parking fees within the designated area, need not worry about maintenance – and the service provider even takes care of filling up. Moreover, you can choose precisely the kind of vehicle you need for every trip. After all, sometimes you just need a small car that is easy to park, sometimes you would prefer an estate if you are going shopping, and at other times a small van might be the best option, for example if you need to move furniture.
And on the other hand, for short trips sometimes you do not need a car at all. In summer, you can use an e-scooter for a quick dash through the city, and it costs very little. Or you can also just call up a ride with a ride-sharing app. A number of companies have started offering small vans in certain cities, in which the passengers then share the costs for a given trip. And in really urgent situations, you can still always take a taxi.
It therefore seems that the reign of the private automobile, as the dominant form of urban transportation, is coming to an end. This is also being demonstrated by initiatives in a variety of European cities. In Paris for example, mayor Anne Hildago has proposed to eliminate the majority of parking spots in the city centre. And combustion engines are to be progressively banned altogether. Surprisingly, even though the automobile has traditionally been part of their lifestyle, Parisians overwhelmingly agreed, and re-elected Hidalgo as mayor earlier this year.
Apparently urban dwellers are slowly re-thinking how to get from point A to point B. Instead of relying on linear means of transportation, so-called “multi-modal” approaches are becoming the wave of the future. This means that users combine the various mobility options in whatever way that best fits their particular need at the time.
Like everything else, this has advantages and disadvantages. The car is a form of mobility that doesn’t require any planning. But statistically speaking, cars sit around unused more than 23 hours per day – and still cost their owners an average of 300 euros every month. The multi-modal alternative, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, but can be adapted at any time to fit your needs.
So has the car become obsolete? Of course not. For example, outside of the city there are fewer alternatives to having your own car. Public transport in thinly-populated areas is still impractical, and there are also very few car-sharing or other options. And even in the city, the car will not disappear completely, since many suburban areas are still not adequately served by public transit. But the private automobile will have to start moving aside for other forms of mobility.
Don Dahlmann, 10.12.2020