Traffic change and diesel driving bans. How do they fit together? – a column by Jonas Kremer

Hermann Knoflacher

Saturday morning in a German city: He goes to the bakery to get the rolls. She comes from the hairdresser and on the way quickly gets the flowers for a birthday party in the afternoon. The means of transport – the car. The car makes us mobile and means a maximum of individual freedom. In a fast-moving time like today, such features are a must for many. However, the voices for change are becoming louder and louder. There will be a change in transport. But what will it look like?

What still seems possible in a small town is almost impossible in the big cities. The average speed of a car in Berlin is only 17 km/h, and traffic jams dominate the cityscape. For the traffic change, the following applies: First of all, the goal must be clear. For while the daily press mainly focuses on the ecological challenges, the organisational and financial debates are often left out.

What is discussed nowadays under the keyword “traffic change” is a very limited, often negative and destructive discussion. Diesel driving bans on individual roads in individual cities, even only individual road sections? Electromobility with a lack of charging infrastructure and without access to the latest technologies by the legislator, as in the case of the failure to expand hydrogen filling stations? No further development of existing infrastructure such as public transport and cycle paths? Large cities have a major challenge worldwide. Hermann Knoflacher already addressed this challenge powerfully in 1975 with his “walking tool” [1]. An average of 1.46 people per car [2] are confronted with an enormous consumption of space as well as fuel and pollutants.

In addition, urban planning has recently reversed its purpose by protecting the most dangerous participant – the car – in such a way (from itself and everyone else) that decisions and construction are fundamentally made to the detriment of everyone else. Planning for new mobility concepts instead continues to be seen as unworldly, depriving of freedom and egalitarian. The result is a polarising, negative and taking-away debate: in 2019 alone, over eight diesel driving bans have been ordered by the courts in cities such as Munich, Berlin and Cologne. Instead of mandated retrofitting, there are (bogus) purchase bonuses for new cars. And recently, the introduction of a city toll has been discussed.

But will that solve the problems? Will the side streets be upgraded by being used as alternative routes for cars instead of for playing and lingering? Will there be less congestion because we all switch to electric cars? And is it fair if mainly the wealthy continue to be allowed into the city because they can afford the tolls (same with the increasing prices for flats)? If you want to break out of the grey of houses and cars, you first need a winnable debate. An ideal traffic change does not force anyone or impose severe restrictions. An ideal change in traffic ensures a sufficient supply of alternatives to serve all purposes.

This is only possible through real alternatives to conventional vehicles, good and free public transport, a very good infrastructure especially for pedestrians, e-scooters and bicycles and affordable sharing offers also outside the city centres. A car lane can become a cycle path, protected from roads and junctions. Car parks can be transformed into small parks and offer more space for a liveable city. However, a future-oriented alternative does not have to be accompanied by restrictions on individual freedom or quality of life. A convincing traffic change can be liberating. With more safety, more comfort and more financial incentives, even more people would switch to alternatives to the car. Instead of the debate about diesel classes 6d, e, or f, people and nature must come into focus. The “concept of the city” must be rethought.

Just suppose: For a brief moment, we move around in a city. You would have the possibility to quickly and safely ride your shopping home on a cargo bike, to wait only 10 minutes for a train at 4 a.m., to use a car-sharing car within walking distance, to sometimes go with your family to visit acquaintances or to the next city. Would there still be so many private cars driving through the city? With today’s mobility solutions, such a brief moment is already a reality. However, nationwide expansion is only possible if we start planning in the right direction, if laws, funding opportunities and framework conditions are created to implement something like this in a targeted manner. We need the courage to plan cities for people and nature again. Because actually, the car’s lead has long since been caught up. But now this must also be felt. Then each and every one of us can ensure that we achieve an increasingly higher quality of life in our cities. Let’s do it!


[2] Drucksache 19/777

Photo: Das Gehzeug, a caricature of the enormous unnecessary space requirements of motorised individual transport;; The original uploading user was Muhwiki in Wikipedia in German (original text: Institute of Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering, TU Vienna), CC BY-SA 2.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons