Interview with Prof. Stefan Rettich and Lola Meyer
In a three-year project, architects and regional planners at the University of Kassel have been looking into the future of rural mobility. Prof. Stefan Rettich and Lola Meyer on ride-pooling in the provinces and saying goodbye to the local bus service.
“The classic scheduled bus service is necessary for the transition, but has no long-term future in rural areas.”
You say, public transport services in rural areas need to change fundamentally. Why?
Rettich: Autonomous driving will make it even more convenient to get from A-to-B in the future. This means that it will become increasingly attractive to move to remote locations with more affordable real estate prices. We see this as a danger that urban sprawl will increase, and even more land will be taken up for car traffic. We should take countermeasures before autonomous driving arrives.
Meyer: It is indisputable that we need a change in transport to effectively protect the climate. The problem in rural areas is that there is practically no alternative to owning a car. Individual places are easy to reach by bus or train – but the overall picture is miserable. We need better public transport as a comprehensive alternative.
Which model do you have in mind?
Meyer: We see strong rail traffic on the main lines as the backbone. Regional trains and trams can transport many people at the same time. In our model, public minibuses act as feeders providing flexible ride-pooling. In addition, there are well-developed bike paths with covered, lockable parking spaces at the transfer points.
Is ride-pooling really an option in sparsely populated regions? In the village, there are few people with whom you can share a ride...
Meyer: The key is to motivate people. In the Offenbach area, there is a ride-sharing service for which a quarter of the residents have already signed up. Demand is so high that nine shuttle vehicles are now in use. One key to the success has been intensive, grassroots communications. (see: “Lessons from the field”)
Rettich: In other locations, community buses exist. This is also a form of ride-pooling-on-demand. These services can be built upon, professionalized and digitized. The classic scheduled bus is certainly necessary for the transition, but it has no long-term future in rural areas.
Who is going to pay for the new offerings?
Meyer: Initially, ride-pooling in rural areas will not cover costs. But neither are today’s services. Studies show that ride-pooling could possibly be cheaper than large, poorly utilized regular buses. In the long term, moreover, personnel costs will fall if technical developments allow autonomously driving shuttle buses.
Rettich: The decisive factor is the economic view: If we do not support public transport, car traffic and urban sprawl will increase. The consequential costs for the environment and the maintenance of the infrastructure are high. The state can easily invest what is saved in public transport.
Can public ride-pooling and private car-pooling be combined?
Meyer: That is our goal – we want to open up private transport to the public. To this end, we have developed a model of digitalized rideshare benches: People arrange to meet via an online platform and then meet at the agreed location for a shared ride. The rider pays the driver a manageable amount. In this way, public and private transport can support each other.
Rettich: The online platform can be used to arrange private rides as well as professional ride-sharing or public ride-pooling on-demand. We talk about hybridization. It is important that the mobility platform is publicly owned so that everyone has equal access. The operators of the platform could be the transport associations that already organize public transport in rural areas.
In rural areas in particular, the proportion of older people is often high. How do you include seniors who are not used to using online platforms and apps?
Meyer: There must be a smooth transition from analog to digital: Those who want to can book the ride online. Those who don’t want to can call and register. With today’s community buses, we find that they are used particularly heavily by seniors. For many, it’s not just about mobility, but also about having a chat with the driver. Even the rideshare benches, which are to be digitized, continue to function in addition in an analog way: People sit down on the bench and specify their destination.
You also want to create new village centers. What should that look like?
Rettich: In the future, every village will need a mobility hub. This is a place for changing vehicles, but also for meetings. There could be traveling retailers, a supplier-independent parcel station, a swap box or a picnic table. In larger towns, other offerings such as co-working spaces could be added. This creates social focal points and places of exchange. (see: “Mobility hub and ridesharing bench”)
Outside the big cities, it’s hard to imagine life today without your own car. Will that remain the case, or could self-driving shuttles alter that?
Meyer: People want comfortable, low-cost mobility. As long as driving is cheap and convenient, it will be difficult to convince them to abandon their cars for climate protection or spatial planning reasons. So, change is not a foregone conclusion. But when the consequences of global warming become noticeable in everyday life, priorities could change quickly.
Rettich: One mayor said in our workshops: We have to think about the next generation. Many young people are opting for bicycles or e-bikes as a matter of course. A generation is growing up that thinks about mobility differently.
Regardless of ownership: E-cars are becoming more important – but when it comes to charging stations, the province is considered to be at a disadvantage. Do you see a solution?
Rettich: At the moment, the charging options are indeed inadequate. In the long term, I don’t expect any major difficulties. In rural areas in particular, many people live in their own homes, which are in themselves private charging stations. In the case of the public mobility hubs, the charging infrastructure is included: you park the car, go to the bakery, maybe have a chat, and the charging time is well covered.
Meyer: From my point of view, we have to fundamentally ask: How many cars do we want? What should our cities and rural areas look like? Car-friendly spaces must become people-friendly. Regardless of the propulsion system. Studies assume that ride-pooling can save up to 90 percent of vehicles. We would like to investigate this in more detail in our research project, which is due to start soon. Our goal for rural areas: We want more mobility with less traffic.
Rettich: Giving up one’s own car is hard to imagine for many. But you can’t think from the status quo. When you call a taxi today, you feel very mobile. Similarly, if you had a ride-pooling on-demand service, it would be at your door in 15 or 30 minutes. That’s the long-term view. In the short term, it would be a win if more people said: One car is enough. If we need more, we’ll call the shuttle. Or we use a vehicle from the village community pool.
Digitized mobility, new social places, a farewell to private car ownership: These were the topics of the “BauMobil” research project at the University of Kassel on the transformation of transport in rural areas. Using the example of a region around the small town of Trendelburg in northern Hesse, scientists from the fields of architectural theory, urban development, and urban and regional planning looked at sustainable mobility options. They were supported by practical partners, including the North Hessian Transport Association, the Administration Union Raum Kassel and the town of Trendelburg. The project was funded by the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development under the Future of Construction program.
Lola Meyer is a lecturer in the department of “Architectural Theory and Design” at the University of Kassel. She lives in the Prignitz region and manages without her own car. If necessary, she borrows a vehicle from a local garage.
Stefan Rettich is a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Kassel. His research focuses on space and politics. Rettich lives in Hamburg. He has no car and covers most of his kilometers by train and bike.
Lessons from the field
Under the name “Hopper,” the Offenbach district transport company in Hesse has established a modern variant of the shared-call taxi. In three municipalities with populations between 9,000 and 21,000, users can book their trip daily from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. via the app. The vehicles serve around 1,000 stops, including existing physical stops as well as other public buildings such as medical centers or town halls.
Mobility hub and ridesharing bench
The concept of the Kassel researchers envisages so-called mobility hubs in every town. These places should provide opportunities for social encounters and at the same time serve the provision of public services. The equipment and functions vary according to the size and location of the place. The middle variant – the midi hub – has a parcel station, exchange boxes for books or fruit, and a kiosk. It is served by buses and offers a digitalized car-pooling bench. This is what the researchers call flexible meeting points for car-pooling.