In urban mobility, dare mighty things

What we'll have to do to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030

In September 2015 Germany, along 192 other states, ratified the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. 5½ years later, we have about 9 years to meet the SDG deadline. Fixing urban mobility – a significant part of the world’s environmental, social and economic woes – in that timeframe seems daunting.

So far, we’re not on track. For reference: Berlin just decided to evaluate the idea to put a cycle path under an elevated railway. The proposal dates back to 2015. Results of said evaluation are expected by end of 2023.1 Completion of the 9 km project: unscheduled, as of yet.

Luckily, there is a more uplifting reference: Mars 2020 mission was announced by NASA in December 2012. Eight years and two months later, rover Perseverance landed 62.07 million km off planet on Mars.

© NASA/JPL-Caltech. Using binary code, the inner portion of the parachute spells out "DARE MIGHTY THINGS". The outer band provides GPS coordinates for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Space travel and urban mobility have little in common2. But the cool people of JPL3 have a powerful, yet simple message for us urbanites: “DARE MIGHTY THINGS”. This applies equally to putting a rover on Mars, and to making urban mobility sustainable on Earth.

So, what are “mighty things” in urban mobility? What would be “daring” in this context? Let’s take my hometown Berlin as an example.


Berlin’s mighty things

In 2018, Berlin passed the urban mobility equivalent of the SDGs: The Berlin Mobility Act (BMA)4. It indeed is mighty: It currently comprises 60 articles of law, with dedicated sections for transit, bike and foot traffic. Two more sections – new mobility and commercial traffic – are in development. It boasts to be the first of its kind: no other city or state in Germany has created such a comprehensive and integrated framework for sustainable future mobility.

Just like the mighty SDGs, the BMA defines overall goals, like Vision Zero, or giving pedestrian traffic, bicycles and public transport priority over cars. It also “supports the goal” to make car traffic in Berlin climate-neutral by 2050. It “intends” for public buses to run on renewable electric energy by 20305.

This type of cautionary language is usually the domain of globally negotiated (read: watered down) treaties, yet the SDGs provide more hard targets than the BMA: In Berlin, “Vision zero is a guiding principle”. The SDG target reads: “By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.”6

Two years after the law passed, even proponents of Berlin’s stated goals are somewhat underwhelmed by the results. Initially, urban mobility projects carried on undeterred, including new bike lanes decidedly non-conformant like this one. But even after allowing for some time to adapt, Changing Cities called the law “official wishful thinking” since legal deadlines are still not met, improvements aren’t implemented, while districts continue to plan and build in direct violation of the law.7

From mighty to meager

The BMA is a brilliant piece of legislation. It manages to navigate the quagmire of overlapping jurisdictions (including the federal road traffic act, which routinely gives cars priority) while outlining a comprehensive and ambitious plan for mobility in Germany’s capital. Unfortunately it’s also a Scheinriese8: a magnitude of a law from afar, yet meager results up close.

Proponents of the BMA will point to

  • progress and some real achievements,

  • delays due to staffing issues, resources, and coordination,

  • misguided expectations: two years won’t undo a century of car centricity,

  • additional upcoming legislation and regulation, e.g., the just passed Urban Development Plan Mobility and Traffic 20309.

But whether the results are more plentiful than acknowledged, the expectations after just 2.5 years overblown or more regulation will speed things up: the fact remains that planning to evaluate a 2015 proposal for a bike path until 2023 is not in line with meeting the 2030 deadline for sustainable urban mobility.


No might without dare

Good intentions – good legislation alone – will not get us where we need to be. That’s neither specific to BAM, nor to mobility, nor to Berlin (even though we repeatedly try to prove otherwise).

The lack of progress, the lack of results and substantial changes in mobility are all due to the same forces that prevents Germany from having a smart grid with smart metering or an internet infrastructure worthy of an industrial powerhouse, to name just two. It’s what I call Republik in Aspik.

  • In Germany, we routinely underestimate the resilience of the status quo, partly because we overvalue the status quo: We evaluate progress in terms of what we could lose, instead of what we could gain.10

  • We have a propensity to focus on risks, details and processes, and less on opportunities, goals and results. Consequently, we lack implementation and enforcement, both of which would naturally flow from a focus on results.

  • We love to debate, basking in the brilliance of complex, yet balanced argument and thought (but eschew decisiveness). Sometimes, this is all we do: a performative exercise to make us feel and look good. Zukunft als Gesprächstherapie.11

  • In case we get near actually doing things, we over-plan, over-engineer, over-complicate and thus under-deliver. We are almost pathologically addicted to rules and at the same time to a multitude of exceptions to those rules. We create magnificent edifices of planning, yet regularly fail to keep these simple enough to implement or enforce. We shield ourselves from failure by ignoring the few tangible targets we set ourselves.12

Sorgfalt vor Schnelligkeit – it is a recipe for Aspik. Even more, it is a German vice. It is our perpetual excuse for inaction, for overcomplicating to the point of impracticability, for drawing out processes to the point that proposed solutions will have no bearing to the reality they were once supposed to address.

Instead, once we’ve agreed to how we see our future, we need to spring into action to get there. We need to start, start with smaller chunks, allow for initiative and iterative corrections along the way. This often means to delegate more power to the local level, find sometimes unlikely allies, with maximum transparency and constant feedback loops. It means to dare – to take charge, to experiment, to muddle forward towards a shared goal.

Germany will – and should – always be doubtful13. But instead of playing it safe when in doubt, we’d better dare to experiment when in doubt, dare to do, dare to start. How else are we ever to achieve anything other than incremental insufficient improvements to an increasingly unsustainable status quo? We, the Land of Ideas should dare to become the Land of the Future. From thought to action: there’s nothing stopping us.


Dare mighty things: A call for creative disobedience

Easier said than done. “There are processes, regulations, how things are done in our democracy and rule of law.” I wholeheartedly agree. I’m neither calling for anarchy nor strongmen. But processes and regulations are not l’art pour l’art. Their purpose is to set the rules of the game, not to stop the game entirely.

Democracy and the rule of law, and governments in particular, gain legitimacy through tangible and visible results – the ability to solve problems effectively within manageable timeframes. By failing to meet our goals, we’re also jeoparizing societal consent to and support for liberal democracy. We urgently need to make our system more responsive, more effective. We need reform.

The task of administrative and political reform makes solving urban mobility look quaint in comparison. Luckily, it’s not the subject of this newsletter. But I would urge not to take on this monumental task by discussing and drafting reform first, and implement much later. Instead, I would focus on reclaiming some responsiveness along the way – via creative disobedience:

“Wo kein Kläger, da kein Richter” is a slightly surprising German proverb, given that Germans are generally regarded as sticklers for rules and process, sometimes at the expense of results. But with lawmakers, administrators and pretty much everyone else entangled in results-defying red tape, “Where there is no plaintiff, there is no judge” might be a way to take action on what is generally agreed to be right, important and urgent – and not to wait.

Let me close with a small urban mobility anecdote:

A few years back, while I was working at the car lobby association VDA, we wanted to install bike racks for employees, visitors and couriers. The sidewalk was getting cluttered with bikes strapped to sign posts, and there simply weren’t enough places to secure a bike. We asked the bike-over-car-preferring Bezirk (city district office) to allow us to install racks on a wider section of the sidewalk14. The request was denied.

I suggested to install them anyway. It would benefit bikers and pedestrians alike, and it was the most sensible place to put them. Who would sensibly object?

We’ll never know. Some questions come to mind:

  • Would the district have ordered the car lobby to dismantle the bike racks and have sued the VDA for illegally appropriating public space?

  • Or would the racks, once fait accompli, freed up the sidewalk for pedestrians, and encouraged employees (and maybe others) to take the bike more often?

I’m sure someone in city administration saw the irony in declining a request by the car lobby for more bike parking. Maybe they wanted instead to rededicate parts of existing street parking space for bikes, as they later did in some other areas of the district. But that hasn’t happened, and the VDA didn’t want to fall foul of the rules, either.15

Mighty ambitions – like making urban mobility safe, sustainable and equitable – need mighty laws and regulations. But they should not come at the expense of speed, dare, and agility – and those might need a bit creative disobedience along the way.

Maybe, sometime in future Germany, “Das wird Folgen haben!” will be not a warning, but a promise. Like a bike path under the elevated railway well before 2030.

It’s up to us. Deutschland. Alles ist drin.

1

Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea. I would love it even more if it was already a reality.

2

For one thing, while lithium batteries are de rigueur in city settings, nuclear batteries as power sources are very much not.

3

Remember him? That was 2012, and the occasion was another Mars mission, Curiosity, which is still running.

4

You can find the current full text version here.

5

Yet Berlin just bought brand new diesel-powered buses. They commissioned a feasibility study on the subject instead.

6

Spoiler: we didn’t meet that target. We reset the clock, and with the Stockholm agreement of last year, are now aiming for 2030.

7

In all fairness: the UN can’t and doesn’t implement any of the SDGs itself. It can only monitor, and nudge its members into putting money and action where their mouth is. If they don’t the UN cannot sanction them.

The Berlin senate, on the other hand, is stuck between a rock and a hard place: Berlin is a city state within Germany, and as such has to navigate the federal law and jurisdiction within its borders. Its 16 districts are mostly in charge of implementation on the ground. With the BMA, the senate provides the districts with the legal framework within the legal boundaries of the federal government, as well as the EU. Creating a massively comprehensive new law is only part of the legal framework, which also includes Implementation regulation still in development. So does building up the administrative infrastructure, processes and staff on the city and district level.

8

In the wonderful children’s book “Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer” by Michael Ende, the Scheinriese TurTur appears to be a giant when seen from afar, but is actually regular human size when up close. The phrase paper tiger is somewhat similar.

9

Yet the previous version, “Urban Development Plan Mobility and Traffic 2025”, passed in 2011, drew critique for the – you guessed it – lack of implementation. https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/kein-platz-zum-parken-aber-zum-radeln-so-sollen-berlins-strassen-2030-aussehen/26968228.html

10

Auf der deutschen Wikipedia-Seite für Technikfolgenabschätzung findet sich das Wort „Risiko“ siebenmal, „Chance“ viermal. Der Fokus auf Risiken bestimmt den gesamten Artikel. (Auf der englischen Seite tauchen beide nur jeweils einmal auf, die neutraleren Worte „assessment“ und „rating“ dafür häufiger.)

11

Creating more and more non-elected and non-result-responsible “Gipfel” Round Tables and Platforms, on top of the already existing formalized hearings in legislative and executive processes, dilutes both responsibility and sense of action.

12

The Nationale Plattform Elektromobilität was dismantled before it would have very publicly missed its stated goals and targets. In its place, with largely the same personnel, the Nationale Plattform Zukunft der Mobilität was installed.

13

A beautiful poem by Erich Fried comes to mind:
Zweifle nicht
an dem
der dir sagt
er hat Angst

aber hab Angst
vor dem
der dir sagt
er kennt keinen Zweifel

14

The VDA’s office in Berlin is in an historic listed building with perimeter block development, providing no privately owned area in front of it. But the building was slightly set back at the proposed location.

15

The VDA ended up chaining a mobile rack to the building: a solution less convenient, less secure, with too little capacity, but better than the status quo ante. The bikes (and the rack) are still on public land – but legally nothing has been installed there. It’s a tiny bit sneaky by technically playing by the rules, and a much more German way to get by. I still think an act of creative disobedience would have not only solved an issue, but also have moved things forward in more ways than a fixed rack.