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Flowing Through the City

There are so many ways to cut back on emissions. One highly efficient way is to arrange for traffic to flow more smoothly. Since 2010, the Volkswagen Group has been working together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) on achieving this goal. 

The trend toward megacities shows no signs of abating. And this is not the only trend – traffic flow research is increasingly directing its focus on small and medium-sized cities, which are also experiencing a constant influx of new inhabitants. “This is why we are working with scientists to conduct research into the topic of urban mobility of the future”, says Hans-Jürgen Stauss, the Head of the Environment and Mobility Division at the Volkswagen Group.

The magic word in this context is empirical mobility research. What might sound cryptic has a huge relevance to practice, as it addresses a large number of everyday questions relating to one and the same topic: Where, why and how do people move around their city? Or to be more specific: How do employees travel to the company they work at every day and return home – after stopping to do the shopping – in the evening? Where do pensioners go to shop, and how often do they do so over the course of a week? Where do “night-owl” students go to enjoy a city’s nightlife, and how to they get to bars and parties? What means of transport do parents use to bring their children to a day care center – and when do they pick them up again?

This is the kind of information that the scientists working for Peter Vortisch are collecting. “We ask people from 2,000 households detailed questions in personal interviews every year”, explains the Professor for Transport Studies at the KIT. “This is why the results are also representative.”

Individual traffic usage patterns are fed into computer-based models, which calculate several different variants for traffic planning, and filter out the best ones. And ideally, when these ideas are implemented by the municipalities, they result in optimal transport services and better connections. And that ultimately saves time, land resources, and fuel.

“All research projects are highly dynamic”, says Peter Vortisch. “New driver assistance systems, automatic driving, car-sharing models and many other factors result in rapidly changing conditions.” What is also interesting for the Volkswagen Group is how the “modal split”, in other words how traffic is allocated among the individual means of transport, is evolving.

Private passenger vehicle usage is not becoming obsolete

Another main emphasis of the research by the Volkswagen Group is on the area of traffic engineering. The goal of this research is to make sure intersections in cities function optimally, and more specifically on how they need to be designed to do this, and which (traffic light) technology is best suited to allow as many cars, bicycles, buses, trams and pedestrians to cross them within a short period of time. Here too, the better, faster and more effectively this functions, the fewer congested intersections there are, and the more fuel that can be saved.

Three conclusions have meanwhile been reached:

  1. Private passenger vehicle usage...

    ...is far from becoming obsolete. This is because all modes of transport, including buses and trains, have long since reached their capacity limits – and in some places, are already exceeding them.

  2. Urban infrastructure...

    ...is not growing adequately to satisfy the increasing demand resulting from the constant influx of new inhabitants. This is affecting both local public transport and individual means of transport.

  3. Despite the creation of new infrastructure...

    ...public transport will still not be in a position to solely meet all of the transport requirements that people will have in the future, and to accommodate all transport needs.

“This is why we will need to deal more intensively in the future with automobile traffic in cities. We need to make it more environmentally friendly, safer and more efficient, and to minimize its negative effects, or even eliminate them altogether."

Hans-Jürgen Stauss

This is also a major reason why the environmental and mobility experts at the Volkswagen Group are interested in how traffic can be made to flow more smoothly at intersections. As Stauss explains, “Cars of the future need to be equipped with suitable technology to do this. They won’t be driving into intersections at 50 km/h anymore, but rather at 30 km/h if it means they can go through the intersection without delay.” This will allow start-and-stop traffic to be avoided altogether, thus saving fuel. It is like flowing through air or water at a uniform speed – only in this case, through the city in a vehicle. According to Stauss: “There are still many small levers that – bundled into a package – will help to ensure space, resources and time are not wasted in cities.”

Now improving commercial transport as well

The Volkswagen Group and the KIT are currently doing research into commercial transport. Although, depending on the city, this accounts for 10 to 30 percent of total traffic, it has not been studied to date. While there is meanwhile a large amount of data about private transport, commercial transport is characterized by a black hole. “There’s virtually no statistics at all”, says Vortisch. Stauss adds: “The companies don’t exactly volunteer information either.

”And yet the traffic flow planners are just as interested in knowing who in this sector is on the move when and how often, with which destination, and with which vehicles and types of drive. After all, this type of traffic also needs to become more effective. For example, by using fewer vehicles to make deliveries, and using them more efficiently. That too saves fuel. And produces fewer emissions.