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“We’ll need a different kind of currency for transportation infrastructure”

An interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Markus Stöckner, Professor Dr.-Ing. Thorsten Cypra, and Professor Dr.-Ing. Christian Holldorb, Steinbeis Entrepreneurs at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Infrastructure Management in Transportation (IMV)

Being able to move around is freedom – something we are made acutely aware of by restrictions such as those imposed under the current pandemic. In addition to much-discussed modern forms of travel, a pivotal role in the development of future travel solutions is played by other types of transportation and transportation infrastructure itself. Experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Infrastructure Management in Transportation, which is based at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, are intensively looking into the sustainable transportation infrastructure of the future. In an interview for TRANSFER, they shared a number of their insights.

Hello Professor Stöckner, Hello Professor Cypra, Hello Professor Holldorb. What role does sustainability currently play in transportation?

Markus Stöckner:
Perspectives on the sustainability of transportation vary widely. Presently, much discussion revolves around the different forms of travel, such as how to promote cycling, electric vehicles, or alternative fuels. It’s what society is focusing on at the moment and the subject of continual debate. Yet travel is also about infrastructure, which hasn’t yet become the focus of the overall discussion. This infrastructure should be sustainable and independent of the mode of transportation or different propulsion systems. Consideration should also be given to the construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation infrastructure, which has a significant impact on issues such as life cycle assessments, the circular economy, and the carbon economy. So for example, thought is already being put into a number of concepts, from planning to construction and the operation of transportation infrastructures from a sustainability standpoint. In the future, transportation, telematics-based user control, and the infrastructure will link everything together as part of an overall picture.

Christian Holldorb:
If sustainability means considering ecological, economic, and social factors from an integral perspective, this is an extremely important issue. There’s been a tendency in the past to come at projects and concepts selectively, whereas now the focus is shifting toward a holistic, sustainable view. Adopting this systematic approach – simultaneously giving the entire life cycle the consideration it deserves – is becoming increasingly important, especially when evaluating transportation infrastructures. For a long time now, a number of factors have been central to the planning process when assessing different options and alternatives. There’s no such thing as “optimal” planning. When you’re evaluating different options, you’re always weighing things up – it’s a trade-off. With construction, maintenance, and operation, the focus usually lies in monetary considerations, whether it’s about awarding construction contracts, maintenance management, or the cost efficiency of operating roads. Other aspects are often only considered afterward. This is where there’ll be a change in thinking. In addition to evaluating different factors in euros, we’ll need a different kind of currency for transportation infrastructure, such as carbon emissions or resource consumption. Since there’s generally no actual “market” for transportation infrastructure, sustainability issues haven’t moved forward as much as they have in other industries.

Thorsten Cypra:
This issue is also becoming increasingly important on a national, regional, and municipal level. Constructing and operating transportation infrastructure sustainably, alongside buildings and vehicles, is being given corresponding attention when it comes to decision-making and the planning process. These developments are accelerating as the overall circumstances change, such as meeting climate protection targets by 2045 and the potential this offers to buildings and transportation. But they’re also good for portraying and maintaining a positive image, which results in attractive living environments and places to work. For example, in the IMV team at Steinbeis we advise states and municipal authorities on how the buildings that are required to run the transportation infrastructure can be designed and used sustainably, or how to transform vehicle fleets in the coming years with a view to meeting climate protection targets.

What challenges still lie ahead for transportation if it’s to become truly sustainable?

Christian Holldorb:
For a transportation system to be sustainable, it’s not just crucial to think about technical and financial issues; you also need to assess social factors, since travel is a key aspect of our everyday lives – starting with the global exchange of goods, to areas like long-distance journeys and local transportation. These are the kinds of issues that society can only answer through political discussion. Transportation, i.e. the technical side, can provide the information you need for objective discussion.

We also face some major challenges when it comes to the travel infrastructure, not just in terms of the materials and processes we use, but also with respect to identifying the best solutions. A current example of this is a research project looking into the economic implementation of environmentally friendly countryside management, which we’re working on at the IMV Steinbeis Transfer Center on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. One issue we’re looking into is how to strike the right balance between the legitimate need to protect species with the immense challenge of maintaining roadside greenery. This is where it helps to have new technology and optimized processes, although ultimately, you have to weigh up different goals in terms of sustainability.

How does digital technology help you with this?

Markus Stöckner:
In principle, all areas of sustainable transportation require control processes supported by IT systems. All necessary procedures, applications, and technologies require a foundation of solid data. What this means for the travel infrastructure is that you need a digital twin equipped with relevant information on various applications, which has to be up to date and valid. If this is the case – and all such information is available in an accessible, i.e. manufacturer-independent and readable format – different application areas (from planning to autonomous driving and the management of traffic infrastructure assets) can be furnished with the required information. Currently, this kind of information is stored in distributed systems based on different spatial referencing, but also using differing ontologies. So the aim should be to identify the information that’s needed, and to ensure that it’s kept available for the various applications within a digital twin and can be made accessible whenever required. That’s still a long way off, but the methods of building information modeling, or BIM, will help us get there. The IMV team is involved in a research project in German-speaking countries aimed at establishing a basis for a BIM model to manage the assets of traffic facilities on behalf of road construction authorities. It’s only a small step, but it’s essential to make this information available so that other applications have the data they require in the first place. In mathematical terms, you could say that digital technology is necessary, but not sufficient. This is a clear reflection of the basic function performed by digital technology.

Safety is an important issue with transportation, and sustainability plays a big role too. What does sustainable road safety actually mean, and how can it be safeguarded?

Thorsten Cypra:
Safeguarding and improving road safety is a primary rule of thumb when planning and operating traffic infrastructure. The number of people killed in road traffic accidents each year has been dropping for years and it’s currently at an all-time low. Despite this, serious road accidents cause personal suffering and result in social damage with far-reaching impacts. Under the EU’s Vision Zero, European countries are pursuing the long-term goal of zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by road traffic. This requires action on a variety of fronts – the general public, society, vehicles, road infrastructure, and legislators. Measures aimed at improving road safety thus play an important role when it comes to the sustainability of road traffic, with positive effects from an economic, ecological, and social perspective.

But if you consider this from the perspective of the shift to alternative travel solutions – aimed at achieving climate protection goals – this aspect becomes all the more important. For example, many municipal authorities are now developing and introducing new transportation concepts. Support is being given to cyclists, pedestrian traffic, and public transport, and this is resulting in changes on the roads. Particularly the number of bicycles in road traffic has increased sharply in recent years. When you’re redesigning the infrastructure along these lines, it’s particularly important to maintain a focus on the traffic safety of all road users.