The first thing you notice is the number of bicycles. They’re everywhere. It’s quite hard to find a spot in Munich where you can’t see one. Right now, I’m working in a café just off the Isartorplatz, and I can see nine of them huddled around a tree. And just across the tram lines? There’s a bike shop.
We’re in town for Mobility.Pioneers, which kicks off just across the river at Muffatwerk tomorrow, so transport — and the cities of the future — are on everyone’s mind this week. But, having travelled the relatively short distance from our Vienna base, it’s also striking how different the cities of today are.
Cycles are a rare sight in Vienna, at least in the winter time. Yet here in Bavaria, just one country across from Austria, they’re being pedalled about town with gusto. And the odd spot of head-shaking, bell-tinkling fury, each time yet another clueless tourist saunters along on the bikes-only half of the pavement.
Cycling may seem a low-tech topic to discuss in the hours before our event speakers explore deep tech issues like artificial intelligence, smart traffic management and autonomous driving. But the fact is, it’s all inter-related. You can’t ignore a city’s existing transport culture when you’re thinking about its transport future. Ditto its infrastructure.
A bike, after all, is an elegant solution to city transport, and has long been so. Cities like Munich or Amsterdam, who have known this for decades, might be expected to be far more open-minded to concepts like car-sharing. Because they’re already less sold on the one-person, one-car culture than other places. The concept of a vehicle (possibly shared) as a weekend plaything should catch on far easier in these places than in, say, the south-east of England.
German companies are among the most-forward thinking on the topic. Mobility.Pioneers speaker Holger Weiss, of German Autolabs, uses horses (!) as an illustration on how we should think about the way we use cars in the smarter, more efficient and less congested cities of the future.
“It could be that in certain countries or metropolitan areas of the future, private car ownership is simply not allowed anymore,” he says. “Or it might be allowed 40 miles out of the city and you use the car as a weekend entertainment, to go to the country. Like it is now for riding a horse.
“And that’s my analogy. People say ‘but people like driving cars!’ and I say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but people also like riding horses.’ But we don’t have these beautiful animals filling up our cities, do we?
“It’s called innovation evolution: if there’s no private car ownership then there will be shared systems.”
Which brings me to another Munich vignette from this morning. I saw a lady emerging from a church car park on Thierstrasse, in a vehicle proudly bearing the decal of Statt Auto, which claims a partnership with the local transport authority (MVG). Maybe my eyes are particularly open to car-sharing this week, but it was nice to get so timely a reminder of the concept’s growth. As for its genesis, the talk from Zipcar founder Robin Chase at Mobility.Pioneers tomorrow is likely to be highly enlightening.
But despite the bikes and the car-sharing, Munich, with its multi-storey shop-windows stuffed with Mercedes, not to mention BMW in its blood and Audi up the Autobahn in Ingolstadt, is very much motoring central. And yet, many of its citizens, like the proverbial horse owners, aren’t using cars as their go-to transport. This is the kind of blend of technology, efficiency and common-sense that all cities are going to need going forward.
Not that it’s invariably fun and games getting around Munich when you’re a first-time visitor. Buying a weekly city transport pass from the machines at the Hackerbrücke S-Bahn station yesterday evening was far from easy. I had to join forces with two equally confused recent bus arrivals — one from Romania and one from Macedonia — to try and figure out the multitude of ticket options, zones and routes. Unable to convince the machine to sell us a ticket for Zone 1 only, and with no human official in sight to ask for help, we eventually gave up and rode ticketless.
Next time I’m going to think like a Münchner. I’m going to bring my bicycle.