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“Technology alone will not solve the climate problem”

Interview with Prof. Barbara Lenz

Prof. Barbara Lenz heads the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). In an interview she talks about mobility after corona, climate protection and alternative propulsion systems.

“Digitalization has received a boost. This could help make public transport more attractive in the future.”

Transport researcher Barbara Lenz Photo: DLR

Corona has massively changed mobility. What is temporary and what is long-term?

It is too early for scientifically based statements. The snapshot shows: The share of private transport has risen significantly. In a survey shortly before Easter, we found that people felt more comfortable on bicycles or in cars than on public transport. We are planning two more surveys by the end of the year. Only then will we know whether behavior and attitudes towards mobility will change in the long term.

How likely do you think it is that public transport will suffer permanent damage?

We don’t know. In big cities we observe that the buses and trains are gradually filling up again. This also has to do with the fact that many households in the conurbations do not have a car. In Berlin, for example, the figure is two thirds of households. The distances to work in particular are often too long to travel by bicycle – so people are dependent on alternatives such as the S-Bahn rapid transit railway system. But as I said, the return happens very slowly. It will be quite a while before public transport has as many users as it did before corona. Until then, companies will suffer from high losses of revenue and additional costs for hygiene measures.

Is climate protection threatened with a setback?

I would not speak of a setback – but there will certainly be a delay. Before the pandemic, we were largely agreed that public transport is the backbone of sustainable mobility, at least in urban areas. Many companies expected their employees to travel within Germany by train instead of by plane. All this has to pick up speed again first. In the long term, however, corona could even promote climate protection.

How so?

Digitalization has received a boost. This could help to make public transport more attractive in the future. For example, digitization improves the conditions for cashless payment and for providing passengers with good information. In Paris, there is already an app that tells me in which metro car I can find a free seat. Other technologies will help to improve the air we breathe. All this, of course, costs money, which the state has to provide.

Stop at the e-filling station.

“In the next ten years, e-mobility is the best solution for making traffic more climate-friendly.”

Prof. Barbara Lenz

Alternatively powered vehicles are also important for climate protection. In the National Platform for the Future of Mobility you have dealt with this intensively. What is your conclusion?

Our working group recommends an approach that is open to new technologies with three main focuses: In the next ten years, e-mobility is the best solution for making transport more climate-friendly. The technology is available, it is ready for the market and there is a certain diversity of models. In the commercial vehicle sector, hydrogen also plays an important role. This is especially true for heavy goods vehicles, but also for buses. In shipping and aviation, it will not be possible without alternative fuels from biomass to electricity. However, even all technologies together will not be enough to sufficiently reduce CO₂ emissions by 2030. A gap remains.

How big is this gap?

This depends crucially on how ambitious we are in expanding and promoting alternative drive systems. There is a wide range: In the best case, we will save around 63 million metric tons of CO₂ per year by 2030. In the worst-case scenario, it is only 26 million tons. The Federal Government’s target for road traffic is 65 million tons. From today’s perspective, we will miss this figure – either by a narrow margin or very clearly. We need the alternative drive systems. But technology alone will not solve the climate problem.

What needs to happen to close the gap?

It will not work without changes in behavior. In concrete terms, this can mean leaving the car at home for shorter distances. Instead, it is better to walk, cycle or use public transport. I expect that in the foreseeable future we will also have entry restrictions for cars into German cities. At least for certain types of vehicles. A change in behavior also means train instead of plane – at least on domestic routes. We witnessed that this can be successful when the Munich/Berlin railway line was opened. The journey time fell from six to four hours – and many travelers switched to the train.

How do climate targets fit in with people’s mobility wishes?

There’s no way to answer that. We know from interviews that the opportunities to be had from being mobile are of great value to most people. The type of mobility is closely linked to routines. Whether we go to work, do sports or spend our weekends – we usually follow habits which in turn are linked to specific means of transport. The problem is not that mobility wishes and climate protection do not go together. The challenge is: we have to change our mobility habits.

Climate-friendly mobility needs alternatives.

“In terms of cycling, pedestrian traffic and public transport, we can do much better.”

Prof. Barbara Lenz

How can this succeed?

The alternatives must be as attractive as possible. We can do much better in terms of cycling, walking and public transport. Cyclists, for example, need space so that they feel safe on the road. Today, public spaces are blocked in many places. It’s no use building a super bike lane either, and at the end of the lane users end up in the middle of car traffic. Or when cycle paths and footpaths are lying in the blazing sun. We have to consider all these things together so that the alternatives to the car work as a system. In addition to a more attractive offer, regulation is needed. Politicians have to find the right balance here.

Do all people have similar requirements – or are there differences?

In the countryside and on the outskirts of cities, the affinity to the car is much greater than in the inner cities. This has to do with the fact that there is a better provision of public transport in the centers. Many senior citizens also attach great importance to their own car. Anyone over 60 today has practically grown up with a car. With the idea that the car offers freedom. Among younger people, car ownership is not so highly valued. However, the proportion of those who have a driving license is also high. Many young people do not want to be deprived of the option of driving a car.

What are your personal wishes regarding your mobility?

I live relatively centrally in Berlin – my greatest luxury is an excellent public transport system. I do not need a timetable. I just go to the bus stop and wait until the next bus comes. I also like to use ridesharing and carsharing services – I love this all-round carefree service across different means of transport. But I know that this only works in the big city. In rural areas or on the outskirts of the city it is not affordable.

Prof. Barbara Lenz (65) is head of the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. In the National Platform “Future of Mobility” she heads Working Group 2, which is concerned with alternative propulsion systems and fuels.


In the series “Inter/view” we talk to independent thinkers from science, business and politics about mobility of the future. In an open dialogue, we discuss where difficulties lie, what solutions we can look forward to and how traffic can be organized in a climate-neutral way.

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