Today’s Mobility Mania and the Revolutionary Grab for the Emergency Brake

Buchkollektion der Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011; Ausstellung 2012ff)

Foreword to: Rights of Way – Mobility Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Everyone is talking about the boom in electric cars. Here’s one quotation: »Manufacturers of electric cars are in a gold rush mood. Market forecasts promise as many as one million sales of electric vehicles in the next five years.« But that appeared back in 1991, in the magazine »Fairkehr«, published by the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), Germany’s alternative automobile association. Today, two decades later, there are still only 2,300 electric cars in Germany. And now, all of a sudden, there’s the statement by the government in Berlin that they expect to have a million electric cars in Germany by 2020.

Two decades ago, one million electric cars would have made up 3.3 per cent of the total 30 million cars on the road. In 2020, those million e-cars will be part of an overall fleet of 43 million, so the proportion has fallen to 2.3 per cent. Even if all the dreams now come true, we’ll have spent three decades waiting for the first paltry million electric cars, while watching the – already a very small – promised proportion of electric within the total number being cut by a third.

Despite this, the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) in September 2011 was hailed as the »green motor show«. Its main focus was on the hype surrounding »electromobility«, »new usages« for cars, such as »car2go« and »car sharing«, and the promises of reduced emissions from cars through »biofuels« and »low-pollution motors«. In the other transport sectors of rail, air and freight, green ideas are likewise popular topics. High-speed intercity-express train services are to be expanded. Air travel is to become more environmentally friendly with the introduction of aviation taxes. According to the German government, rail freight is growing significantly, and in the opinion of federal transport minister Peter Ramsauer, even the use of »gigaliners« for road haulage will bring ecological benefits, as two such trucks can move as much cargo as three normal ones.

While the IAA was on, I was especially interested to see a double-page advert in the larger newspapers for that well-known VW subsidiary with the slogan »Vorsprung durch Technik«. The headline read: »Audi connect«, and the ad was intended to provide insights into the future of »networked mobility«.

Networked mobility – now that really would be a good thing. But when I say it, I have the temerity to assume the word mobility covers all forms of human movement – including, in particular, the non-motorised forms. And I translate the Latin words »mobilitas« and »mobilis« not as »high mileage« and the »ability to be everywhere«, but as »being able to move around the epicentre of one’s own life« and »having one’s most important mobility needs within optimum reach«.

Martin Wagner, the Jewish and Social-Democratic Berlin traffic planner, once said something similar over half a century ago: »The transport needs of a city dweller in western civilisation consist of roughly 1,000 purposeful movements per person per year. Of these, some 650 would be in walking distance if they’d been planned properly by the city planners; the remainder would be reachable using private and public means of transport.«1 The »constant of transport needs« identified by Wagner is still valid today. The five basic transport needs – i.e. purposeful movements to work, to places of education, to go shopping, for recreational purposes, and for holidays – have remained more or less constant. The main thing that has changed are the distances separating the epicentre of our lives from the destinations for each of those five mobility needs. Whereas in 1965 (when people already talked in general terms of affluence and the consumer society) a German citizen travelled about 6,600 kilometres with motorised transport to complete targeted movements of this kind, today the figure is almost twice as high, at 13,000.2 The consequences of such an escalation in forced mobility are devastating for people, the environment and the climate. The available data on mobility in the near future suggest that this disastrous trend is set to increase – in three areas.

Automobility: Between 1985 and 2010, the number of cars in the world tripled from 335 million to nearly a billion, while the global population »only« increased from 4.85 to 6.9 billion – or by 42 per cent. The last few years have seen the start of a huge acceleration in the rates of car uptake in emerging countries. At present, the investments are being made for another doubling in the number of private vehicles by 2025. Even in some of the so-called saturated markets, the number of cars is growing – in some cases at absurd rates. In Germany today, the population is declining by 200,000 annually; at the same time the number of cars being registered each year is rising by 200,000.3

Air transport: No other form of passenger transport is growing as fast as air transport. Global air traffic doubled in the period between 1995 and 2010.4 It is set to double again by 2025. In Beijing, the largest airport in the world is currently under construction, which will have a capacity of 200 million passengers per year. That’s almost as many as the combined total handled by today’s three biggest airports (Atlanta, Beijing and Chicago O’Hare). But here again we should ask: why fly so far, when there’s travel mania closer to home? Between 1995 and 2010, the number of German internal flights rose by 60 per cent, while long distance rail travel stagnated. Only recently, EADS-Airbus presented plans to build an extended A380 to carry up to 1,000 passengers.

Freight transport: The movement of goods has also become largely disconnected from the growth rates of population and gross domestic product (GDP). Global GDP doubled between 1980 and 2000, yet in the same period there was a threefold increase in global trade (measured in US dollars). The physical transportation of goods has more than quadrupled. Indeed, container shipping has been growing by ten per cent per year since 1990, which means it doubles every seven and a half years and has grown by a factor of four in the last 15 years. Yet the actual exchange processes often have little to do with increasing affluence. Germany exports the same quantities of animal feed as it imports. The UK imports the same amount of pork as it exports. The smallest and most economical model of VW car, the Fox, has a particularly long shipping route since it is only manufactured in Brazil. The transport intensity – the kilometres of transportation incurred for products of the same quality – is growing from year to year. In 1878, Otto von Bismarck, the minister president of Prussia, complained that increasing quantities of wood imported from Hungary and Sweden were ruining the internal market for wood, with »foreign wood benefiting from rail companies’ cheap rates compared to those for locally produced wood«. Today, Bavarian beech wood is exported to China, where it is turned into children’s toys before being reimported to Europe – a process that is encouraged by the very high subsidies provided worldwide to all forms of transportation.

This escalation of irrational mobility produces ever absurder fruit. In July 2011, when California’s most important highway, the Interstate 405, was closed for 53 hours, the cut-price airline JetBlue offered »carmageddon« flights for the 40-mile journey from Bob Hope airport to Long Beach. The tickets cost four dollars each and they sold out in 20 minutes. Previously, the highway had ten lanes, but it is now being broadened to 12 and in places 14 lanes. The traffic planners know that, while they will raise the daily capacity from 281,000 cars to 350,000, the new lanes will also nevertheless soon become clogged and the permanent jam will return.5 The Interstate 405 scenario is effectively a giant, tailor-made experiment illustrating Hermann Knoflacher’s thesis that in reality cars are not moving vehicles, but stationery vehicles, and traffic jams are not exceptions in road transport, but the rule.6

During the IAA 2011, the magazine »Auto Bild« published an article about the BMW M5 under the headline: »Sober Outfit, Brutal Performance«. This car – dubbed the »stealth bomber« by the article – boasts 560 horsepower and an official top speed of 250 kph. As »Auto Bild« informs its readers, »for an additional fee BMW can adjust that top speed from 250 to 305 kph. In this case, however, you have to attend an advance driving class.«7

But where – in the words of Erich Kästner – is the positive in all that? What about the electric cars? Isn’t car sharing the next big thing? Aren’t biofuels a solution? Wasn’t there supposed to be a reduction in the exhaust emissions? Isn’t it the aim of transport policy to achieve zero road deaths?

Sadly, there are no »positives« to be found among these oft-cited, classic areas of reform to the existing mass mobility. In 2011, once again the exhaust pollutants emitted by the car models of all the German manufacturers are significantly higher than the 130 g of CO2/km limit, to which the EU aspires. As a weighted average, the cars built by the German carmakers in 2011 emit 150 g of CO2/km. Among the premium manufacturers, Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Audi, which set the trends in the market, this figure is considerably higher. Even the mass-production Volkswagens emit 142 g CO2/km – and that’s not including the VW-owned marques, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche and Lamborghini.8 Most importantly, however, in Europe too the number of cars on the road is increasing much faster than the level of pollutants per car is decreasing. Across the 27 member states of the EU, between 1990 and 2010, the number of cars rose by more than 50 per cent from 163 to 255 million. At the same time the reduction in pollutants per car was only around 20 per cent.9

Biofuels – which should more accurately be called agrofuels – are on balance more damaging to the environment than traditional fuels refined from oil. This is the verdict of an EU document in the possession of the Financial Times Deutschland.10 In the case of agrofuels, the idea of »peak oil« is replaced by »peak soil«; instead of finite oil reserves, we face a finite supply of available agricultural land that can be used for producing the agrofuels. As a result, the admixture of agrofuels to the fuel in our petrol pumps, which is already common practice, is contributing a lot to the rising prices of agricultural produce and increased hunger around the world.

The proportion of car sharing in thetotal traffic on the roads remains laughably small, even 30 years after this form of car use was first conceived. In the whole of Germany in 2011, there are about 5,000 cars in the car sharing pools. The number of users is roughly 190,000 (though many of these people use car sharing instead of owning second or third cars). The much-vaunted »car2go« experiment, launched by Daimler in Ulm in 2010, has also produced sobering results. In total, by mid 2011, 300 Smart cars had been deployed in the city for car2go; 20,000 people are supposedly registered as users in the »mobility club«. The real cost of travel shows that this is in fact promoting and increasing the mobility of the upper middle classes. One hour of car2go usage costs 5.70 euros – or 9.5 cents per minute – which is more than three times the price of public transport.11

As for electric cars, we’ve already seen the first basic statistic. The 2,300 electric cars in Germany represent a share of 0.00007 per cent of the total stock of cars. Even in China, where »electromobility« is subsidised, with sums as high as 10,000 euros being paid to assist the purchase of an electric car, in the year from mid 2010 to mid 2011 no more than 800 such cars were bought. The company BYD (»Build Your Dreams«), in which not only China but also Daimler have invested to achieve automobility beyond oil, now resembles the fairy tale emperor in his new clothes. There are still practically no marketable BYD electric cars. Since summer 2011, the company has been struggling to keep the enterprise alive by producing cars with conventional engines. Electric car sales in Europe are in their tens of thousands, and are therefore barely measurable in percentage terms. As such, they are proving to be merely a placebo – albeit a highly effective one in media terms, and a very expensive one. Between 2009 and 2013, the German government alone is providing two billion euros in funding to help carmakers develop electric cars.12 Here too, there are cases of auto mania: in October 2011, Nissan unveiled its »V2H – Vehicle to Home«, the first house for an electric car with a charging point.13

The number of deaths on the road has fallen significantly in highly motorised areas – where there are also highly developed emergency services. Nevertheless, with 38,000 fatalities annually from traffic accidents, the current death toll remains horrendous. Every decade, enough people die on the roads of the EU to populate a city.14 Klaus Gietinger has calculated that in 2005 the number of deaths in road accidents around the world was 955,892. By 2028, the number of traffic deaths will exceed two million. In Gietinger’s own words, »In 25 years time, the risk of being killed or injured in a road traffic accident will be one of the biggest risks facing people all around the world.«“15

There are no »internal reforms« in the field of automobility. Instead, the nature of greenwashing is becoming more and more sophisticated. Conventional automobility remains the dominant form, and its popularisation and intensification are making all the well-documented problems associated with it much worse. The car companies and the oil multinationals already have fixed plans for a twofold increase in the number of conventional cars in the world by 2025. In view of the available oil reserves and the associated emissions, such an increase shouldn’t be possible, unless oil is squeezed from the tar sands and drilling is carried out ever more deeply beneath the sea and in the arctic, which would cause unprecedented levels of destruction. This means that, simply in terms of the global transport sector, there is a threat of collapse related to resources and pollution.

And it isn’t »human kind« that’s digging its own grave in this way. It’s not primarily »human needs« that are being served by automobility. More than anything, it is the corporations and financial power structures – and the related global transport policies – that are responsible for this special kind of mobility, and which keep on expanding it. Today, around a quarter of all the turnover and aggregated profits generated by the 500 largest companies in the world derive from enterprises in the oil (exploration and refining) and automotive sectors, as well as aircraft manufacturers and airlines. Of the world’s 12 largest companies in the 2010 financial year, eight were oil companies and one was a carmaker.16 The oil states are linking up with the automotive industry and airlines: Qatar has a 19 per cent stake in VW; Kuwait and Abu Dhabi hold 16 per cent of Daimler.17 Emirates is now climbing rapidly to become the biggest airline in the world. The Dubai-owned carrier is the single biggest customer for the biggest aeroplane in the world, the Airbus A380, having ordered 90 of them recently. Along with two other Arab-owned airlines, this means 45 per cent of all current A380 orders are going to »OPEC airlines«. Meanwhile, the aircraft manufacturers, who are closely tied to the arms industry, form the global sector that is most heavily subsidised with taxpayers’ money.18 At the same time, EADS is providing training for the police in Saudi Arabia and devising a »security system« for Abu Dhabi; and since 2007, Dubai’s state-financed investment fund, Dubai International Capital LLC (DIC), has held a 3.1 per cent stake in EADS-Airbus.19

This corporate power bloc maintains a potent lobby in all areas of politics; it dispenses the largest advertising budget by far, which in turn means that most printed and electric media are dependent on it. Thus public opinion is also influenced to a considerable extent by that lobby. In September 2011, it emerged that, for about ten years, the airline company Air Berlin has been giving out »Counter Cards Premium Plus« to a group of 100 VIPs, with which they and their families have been able to fly everywhere in the world for free. An unknown number of German MPs received »topbonus Gold Cards«, the use of which secured them a 40 per cent bonus on all their air miles, as well as priority service at check-in and boarding.20 Yet Air Berlin is just a small player in the great mobility circus that is the oil-car-plane lobby.

I’m certainly not trying to deny that the specific kind of mobility provided by cars and planes meets the needs of millions of people. In a world in which people have gained the impression – quite correctly – that neither they, nor sometimes even parliaments can influence major decisions, which are made instead in corporate headquarters and by »financial markets«, mobility that allows us to drive at high-speed out into the countryside, or take frequent quick shopping trips to New York, or go sunbathing in Majorca etc., takes on huge significance. To a great extent, however, these are surrogate needs, which are still promoted very tangibly by politicians. Take automobility in Europe, for example. Between 1990 and 2008, in the territory of the 27 EU member states the motorway network expanded by 55 per cent (from 41,886 km of road, to 65,100 km). In the same period, the number of cars in the region grew by »only« 43.6 per cent (from 163 to 234 million). You could say the way was »paved in advance«. To complete the picture, during those years the rail network was reduced by eight per cent; rail’s share of overall motorised transport sank steadily to today’s figure of 6.3 per cent.21

We have known for a long time what the alternatives are to the destructive forms of car and air mobility described here. It really is about »networked mobility« – in which structural policies, which aim to avoid traffic, shorten journeys and, when there is still a need for transport, to shift it to more appropriate forms, play a decisive part; and in which non-motorised forms of transport (walking and cycling) as well as public transport also perform a key role.22 People, and especially the youth, are not to blame if these alternatives are achieved only as a fragmentary mosaic of coverage – or if they are kept hidden, though not actually secret, by the large-scale media. The automotive industry is appalled that, according to figures from the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, in the last decade the proportion of new car buyers below the age of 30 has more than halved, falling from 17 to seven per cent. The PR strategists of the car2go and car2home concepts are aware that in Germany already 80 per cent of 20- to 29-year-olds believe you don’t need a car in urban areas at all, thanks to the existence of public transport.

However, transport policy is not (yet) determined by these young people. For instance, new cities – including new car-based cities in China – are being built by the town planner Albert Speer, who still holds on to outdated models of mobility, saying recently: »I don’t believe in car-free city centres.« Speer Jr. has identified himself with several of the basic ideas on transport policy devised by Albert Speer Sr. His father played a leading role in the Nazis’ motorisation plans, and in setting their agenda for car-friendly cities as a prerequisite for the »motorisation of the people«. In the words of Albert Speer Jr.: »I think his ideas of relocating the railway stations (…) and keeping the city centre free of railway tracks make sense.«23

The Italian and German fascists wanted to realise their plans for the motorisation of the people following the victory of the Axis powers in the Second World War – which was also a war over oil. The motorisation of the people did indeed take place, although it followed the defeat of the regimes in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. Until well into the 1980s, the motorisation of the people was led by the oil and automotive corporations of the USA. The »American Way of Life« was renamed the Modern Way of Life in the other OECD states. Since the motorisation of the people »only« took place in the highly industrialised, capitalist states, it was generally possible to suppress the finite oil supply and the limited resilience of the global climate as topics of public debate, until into the 1990s. Now, in 2011, 75 percent of the world’s cars are still concentrated in the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. These places are home to just about 16 per cent of the global population. Although the process of mass motorisation has already begun, in China and India there are still only approximately 15 cars per 1,000 people in 2011. In the USA the figure is 770 cars, in the EU 510 cars, and in Germany 560 cars per 1,000 people.24

In this context of such unequal car distribution, and in view of peak oil and the impossibility of the car society to carry out »internal reforms«, the current plans of the internationally active carmakers to motorise the global population will inevitably lead to more big wars for oil. One important question – which is highly significant in the current situation of financial crisis and competition between the dollar and the euro – is which currency will be used in future for calculating the price of the world’s lifeblood? Will barrels of oil continue to be traded in US dollars? Or will it soon be in euros (perhaps the euro of a core European area, following the reintroduction of the drachma, peseta, escudo and the Italian lira)? Or why not go straight to the Chinese yuan?

The war between Iraq and Iran (1980 to 1988), as well as those in Iraq (1990/1 and 2003), Afghanistan (2001 to 2011) and Libya (2011) may in hindsight turn out to have been overtures to this major conflict over the world’s remaining oil, a fight which will prove decisive for the survival of civilised human society on the planet.

It is essential that we stop this calamitous progression of world history. In many respects, the Arab revolutions of 2011 have a model character. Democracy in the oil-producing regions would cause massive increases in the oil price and make us more keenly aware of the need to change our transport habits.

Walter Benjamin wrote: »Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.«25 Benjamin’s imagery to describe revolutions in general makes the need for the transport revolution in particular abundantly clear. A different world is possible – a different mobility is necessary.

Winfried Wolf is Editor-in-chief of Lunapark 21 – Magazine for Critique of the Global Economy. He is active on behalf of the rail experts group Bürgerbahn statt Börsenbahn. His publications include »Eisenbahn und Autowahn« (1985, 1986 and 1992; English edition: »Car Mania – A Critical History of Transport«, Pluto Press London 1996); and »Verkehr. Umwelt. Klima – Die Globalisierung des Tempowahns« (2007 and 2009).

1 Martin Wagner, »Verkehrter Verkehr«, in: Baukunst und Werkform, No. 1/1957. For more details, see: Winfried Wolf, »Verkehr. Umwelt. Klima – Die Globalisierung des Tempowahns«, Vienna 2009, pp. 380 and 491.

2 See Winfried Wolf, »Eisenbahn und Autowahn«, Hamburg 1992 (3rd ed.), p. 655; (English edition: »Car Mania – A Critical History of Transport«, Pluto Press London 1996); »Verkehr in Zahlen« (transport statistics) 2010/2011, published by the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, in cooperation with the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Hamburg 2010.

3 The German population in 2007 was 82.2 million; in 2008 it was 82.0 m, and in 2009, 81.8 m.; the number of registered cars was 39.9, 41.18 and 41.33 million respectively. See »Verkehr in Zahlen« 2010/2011.

4 See Winfried Wolf, »Globalisierung. Flugverkehr. Gegenwehr«, in Lunapark21 Extra03, September 2010, based on: ICAO, Annual Report of the Council 2008 and 2010.

5 The »« website offers a video game in which players use their cars in a brutal competition against pedestrians. JetBlue named its special ticket after this website. Referenced in the »Süddeutsche Zeitung«, 18 July 2011.

6 See Hermann Knoflacher, »Stehzeuge: Der Stau ist kein Verkehrsproblem«, Vienna-Cologne-Weimar 2001; Hermann Knoflacher, »Virus Auto. Die Geschichte einer Zerstörung«, Vienna 2009.

7 »Auto Bild«, 30 September 2011 (No. 39)

8 Manufacturers’ own figures; e.g. BMW claims an average value of 153.7 g CO2/km for its range of cars in 2011; Mercedes claims 168,4 g CO2/km. The real values are significantly higher.

9 According to official figures, the average consumption of all cars and estate cars (petrol and diesel) in Germany has fallen from 9.1 l per 100 km in 1991 to 7.5 l/100 km in 2009 – the equivalent of 18% (»Verkehr in Zahlen 2010/2011«, p. 302 ff). The fuel consumption per car is therefore still considerably higher than it was between the 1950s and 1970s. Since that time, the weight of the average car has doubled and the hp rating tripled, while the number of occupants has fallen by 20%. As the number of cars with air conditioning has risen from about 15% to 90% in the same period, and as the fuel consumed by these AC units is not taken into consideration for the statistics, the actual decline in per-car fuel consumption may in fact be much lower than officially stated.

10 cf. »Financial Times Deutschland«, 16 September 2011

11 Taken from: »Süddeutsche Zeitung«, 20 September 2011

12 See Christoph Ruhkamp, »Luxus mit Stütze«, in the »Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung«, 10 June 2011; Jens Tartler, »Ramsauer tauscht Chef für Elektroautos aus«, in the »Financial Times Deutschland«,23 September 2011.

13 »A white honeycomb stands on stilts. On its roof are 488 solar modules. While the house tanks up on sun, a car beneath the robot-like house is tanking up on electricity. The electrically powered car by the name of Leaf is made by Nissan – the house too.« In »Financial Times Deutschland«, 6 October 2011.

14 According to »EU Energy and Transport in Figures, Statistical Pocketbook 2010«, Brussels.

15 Klaus Gietinger, »Totalschaden – Das Autohasserbuch«, Frankfurt am Main 2010.

16 The full list is (in brackets country, industry and total turnover in billion US dollar for 2010): Wal-Mart Stores (USA; retailer; 422), Royal Dutch Shell (UK; oil; 378), Exxon Mobil (USA; oil; 355), BP (UK; oil; 309), Sinopec Group (China; oil; 273), China National Petroleum (China; oil; 240), State Grid (China; provider; 226), Toyota Motor (Japan; cars; 222), Japan Post Holdings (Japan; post; 203), Chevron (USA; oil; 196), Total (USA; oil; 186), ConocoPhillips (USA; oil; 184). According to: Global 500, Fortune (USA), 8 August 2011.

17 See »Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung«, 19 August 2011 (on Daimler); »Handelsblatt«, 16 March 2010 (on VW/Porsche).

18 Boeing is the largest arms manufacturer in the USA; EADS-Airbus is the largest arms manufacturer of continental Europe. The US government claims that Airbus has received »illegal subsidies« amounting to 205 billion dollars over the last 25 years. The subsidies to Boeing are said to be similarly large – according to the complaints levelled at Boeing by the EU Commission and EADS-Airbus. Cf. Winfried Wolf, »Globalisierung. Flugverkehr. Gegenwehr

19 »Manager Magazin«, 5 July 2007; »Süddeutsche Zeitung«, 15 July 2011.

20 Details about Air Berlin according to »Berliner Zeitung«, 11 October 2011, and »Süddeutsche Zeitung«, 4 October 2011.

21 According to: »EU Energy and Transport in Figures, Statistical Pocketbook 2010«.

22 My first call for a »transport policy of avoidance, shortening and shifting« was in 1986 in Winfried Wolf, »Eisenbahn und Autowahn«, Hamburg 1986 (and Hamburg 1992).

23 In »Spiegel«, 8 November 1999. The first Speer quotation in »Financial Times Deutschland«, 9 September 2011. Interestingly, the »Stuttgart 21« project borrows quite a lot from the Nazis’ plans. After a visit to Stuttgart by Adolf Hitler on 1 April 1938, the plans for the city’s redesign were finalised. Accordingly, the central station (the same building by Bonatz, then as now) would have been moved to the Rosenstein Park; it was to change from a terminus to a through station; and the former site would have been opened for road traffic and redeveloped in the Nazi style. See Lösch/Stocker/Leidig/Wolf (Eds.), »Stuttgart 21 – Oder: Wem gehört die Stadt«, Cologne 2010.

24 Global figures 2005 according to Winfried Wolf, »Verkehr. Umwelt. Klima – Die Globalisierung des Tempowahns«, p. 238. Statistics for 2011 interpolated from the most recently available figures in each case.

25 Walter Benjamin, »Collected Works«, Frankfurt am Main 1999, Vol. V/2, »Das Passagenwerk«, p. 1232.