Sustainable mobility in the city of the future: Why city lights and headlights still match

For the first time in the history of mankind, more people are living in cities than in rural regions. But how will this trend affect mobility in the future? And which role will the automobile play in all of this? At Daimler, Marianne Reeb deals with questions as such as part of her daily routine. We talked to her about her vision of the future.

If you want to talk to Marianne Reeb about the mobility of tomorrow, most of the time you will experience a sobering insight into today’s mobility first. That’s because the trip from the Daimler Group headquarters in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim to Marianne Reeb’s office at the smart center in Böblingen leads through the Heslacher Tunnel, which appears to have been built by some whim of the gods, or, more likely, the city planners.

This tunnel connects the basin in which Stuttgart is located to the hilly region south of the city. As a result, the tunnel is not only frequently mentioned in the traffic information service on the radio, it’s also a popular excuse for appearing at meetings several minutes after they have started. In many cases, you can even hope to see the other participants understandingly (or even pityingly) nod their heads. This will even make you feel a bit uncomfortable if you objectively come to the conclusion that your tardiness was primarily the result of your own sloppy planning.

Anyhow, the tunnel’s bad reputation is actually undeserved. Ever since it was completed in 1991, the tube has ensured that cars no longer have to struggle up the steep slopes of south Stuttgart — a chore that the city’s residents still performed as a matter of course back in the 1970s and ’80s.

The study of urban mobility is a relatively new discipline, especially when you consider that the automobile is already 133 years old.

In 1995 Marianne Reeb was one of the first people at Daimler to advocate closer study of the interaction between cities, their residents, and their traffic. In many cases, she initially met with incomprehension:

Particularly during this initial phase, we went through the Group and told people that they should take a closer look at cities. But back then some of the employees still thought that our customers primarily lived in rural areas and parked their Mercedes in a nice garage when they got home in the evening.

Marianne Reeb’s ideas are in demand among municipalities and at conventions

It’s a long time since she had to hold such discussions — urbanization has long been recognized as a megatrend. But Reeb is one of the few people who can talk about urbanization without using the usual hackneyed phrases. That’s why although she has a Ph.D. in economics, she’s much better described as a futurologist. She’s in great demand at conventions as well as for discussions with municipalities and business associations.

This week she will take part in a panel discussion at the METROPOLITAN CITIES congress in Aachen, Germany, where she’ll be talking about smart cities and their principles. She also advises the initiative Rhein Ruhr City 2032, whose founder, Michael Mronz, not only wants to bring the Summer Olympics to North Rhine-Westphalia in 2032, but – more importantly – plans to discuss what a sustainable construction and mobility concept for Germany’s biggest urban area could look like.

This initiative is a great fit for our current research,” says Reeb. “Above all, because in our discussions with municipalities we often hear people say that they wouldn’t have any traffic problems if it weren’t for the surrounding region. And in the case of Rhein Ruhr City 2032, we are intentionally working on a transportation concept for an entire region.

Changing in the city — and at its limits

It’s certainly too trite to put most of the blame for the difficulties of urban traffic planning on the commuters who drive into the cities in the morning and back home in the evening. Still, you can only understand cities and their mobility if you also know about the challenges found in their surroundings. “We should actually be talking about smart regions rather than smart cities,” says Reeb. She knows the three dimensions at first hand, as she has her primary residence in Berlin, a second home in Möhringen, an outlying district of Stuttgart, and her office in Böblingen (which, when viewed from Stuttgart, is located on the other side of the aforementioned Heslacher Tunnel).

She also knows that some of these challenges arise precisely where cities and their surrounding areas meet:

Cars are considerably more important for people living outside cities, which is very understandable. Public transportation is less developed there, carsharing often isn’t worthwhile for the operators, and there are enough parking spaces.

For the cities, this means that they can most easily handle the traffic flow from the surrounding areas by enabling people to switch to other means of transportation once they reach the city limits. “Stuttgart isn’t a bad example of this,” says Reeb. “At its park-and-ride facilities in Degerloch and Leinfelden, the city has created places where I can easily switch to public transportation.”

However, there lies even more in this urban transportation concept than mere park and ride. Future-oriented mobility hubs could serve as more than just a link between cars and city trains, as they could also connect all of the other modes of transportation in the urban area. They could, for example, connect people to carsharing vehicles, rental bikes, and eventually to transportation systems that we today aren’t even thing of — such as driverless shuttles, flying taxis, and cable cars. “We can already observe that the modal split — the distribution of traffic among the various modes of transportation — is much more diverse in cities than in rural areas,” says Reeb. If you want to convince people that they should use the means of transport that will bring them to their destination quickly and efficiently, you have to make it easy for them to switch systems. And you have to do this at the city limits as well as within the cities themselves.

Such visions of the future are the result of discussions in the present day. The futurologists at Daimler talk with the municipalities as well as with experts from a variety of disciplines, including urban planners, architects, and vehicle manufacturers. “We’re always trying to look at the city from the residents’ viewpoint. Moreover, we’re researching how society and its values will change so that we can make assumptions about urban life in the near and more distant future,” says Reeb.

In order to spark the imagination, she and her team have turned their ideas into images that transport the viewer 15 or 20 years into the future. Some of these images are now so popular that they are requested by media, speakers, and even business consultants, who want to use them to illustrate their productions and presentations. Marianne Reeb is happy about all the hubbub that these visions induce — visionary images that she herself refers to as hidden-object challenge pictures.

In one of the best-known of these images, a cable car hovers above Stuttgart’s Charlottenplatz. In the middle of the square is a mobility hub, suggesting that the place has become a shared space for everyone on the move. Although cars and vans still drive across the square, the multi-lane main road now runs underground. Tolls are levied on this road during rush hour. The greater the traffic density, the higher the toll. A smart city is flexible in the way it handles the various road users.

Marianne Reeb says it is unrealistic that cars will one day be totally banned from cities: “I don’t think that bans and measures for making driving more costly are always the right solution. There are other possibilities that create positive incentives. Think of a kind of rewards system, for example. In such a model, I would, for example, earn a point if I switched transportation systems or drove a less frequented route one day instead of my usual route along a heavily frequented road. I could then park for free every time that I earned ten points. Such a system would be a powerful tool for regulating traffic. Public officials haven’t even yet begun to make any use of such models.”

How cars can benefit cities

Reeb is convinced that self-owned cars will continue to play a role in the varied urban mobility of the future — if for no other reason than that cars can be used as more than just a means of getting from point A to point B. “Carsharing, for example, is a really great idea,” she says. “But consider for a moment how complicated it is for parents to have to install two child safety seats every time they need a car. We still don’t have a solution for such problems. This is also why city dwellers still tend to buy their own cars as soon as they establish a family, if not earlier.”

But what does a car have to be able to do from a technological standpoint so that it will be an attractive option in the city of tomorrow?

I’m pretty sure that it will eventually have to stop producing local emissions. Almost all of the cities in Europe and Asia have declared this as their goal. Moreover, one day there will almost certainly be stretches of road or individual lanes that will be reserved for autonomously driving vehicles. However, these roads and lanes won’t necessarily be in inner cities, but perhaps also on transit routes, such as those connecting a city with an airport.

And what about the more distant future? “It’s worthwhile to sometimes take the reverse approach by asking how cars can benefit cities,” says Reeb. She already has some answers to this question: “In the future, cars will be smart machines that will have the computing power of several conventional notebooks. Perhaps this capacity could be used for other purposes whenever a car isn’t in operation. Or autonomous vehicles might be able to perform infrastructure tasks on the side. After all, their camera systems continuously monitor the condition of the roads anyway. If they discover a pothole, they could warn other road users or, perhaps, report it directly to the road maintenance department.”

We understand one another

In short, if you want to find out what role cars will play in cities in the future, you have to rethink automobiles to some extent. “The Mercedes-Benz brand has many characteristics, such as durability, high quality, and high value, that will continue to be relevant in the future,” says Reeb.

 However, I think there is also another field that will open up for us as a premium brand. It’s the question of how we can turn the ride in our cars into a personal, emotional experience. This includes issues such as design and comfort, of course, but perhaps also the creation of an ecosystem that offers me precisely the services that I need at any given moment. In this way, it would ensure that my vehicle understands me — a bit like my smartphone already understands me today.

And should the city of the future still feature traffic jams, my car could use my music preferences to put together an anti-frustration playlist as soon as it recognizes the brake lamps of a traffic jam up ahead. However, the futurologists have had to abandon another idea that would have appealed even more to most traffic jam sufferers: That the flare of the brake lamps should automatically start the rotor blades on the roof so that the car can just fly up and away. Of course, it would never work in the Heslacher Tunnel, but it will remain a dream elsewhere too. “We talked with helicopter construction experts about this idea,” says Reeb. “Unfortunately, the laws of physics say ‘no.’”


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This article was written by Sven Sattler. He writes for various media at Daimler, and has already experienced some surprises on the way from Untertürkheim to Sindelfingen: Some days he completed this journey in a surprisingly short time – and other days in a surprisingly long time.