© Gaspers

On the Road to Industry 4.0: The Transformation of Mobility

Travel is not only a basic need, but also an expression of the freedom and flexibility of our modern age

In today’s society there are few topics that arouse such emotions and personal interest as the topic of travel, because mobility impacts each and every one of us. A wide range of necessary solutions have been proposed to improve the quality of modern travel solutions – changes that may be of existential significance to some individuals. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Lutz Gaspers, Director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Land-Use Planning and Structure Development, believes that in the future, mobility will still play a key role in many areas – for all of us as users, for the settlement patterns which have developed in recent decades and which are essentially designed for automobility, and for large swaths of our highly specialized economy, which benefits from advantages offered by different locations within complex production structures.

Travel is a topic which impacts our future and will continue to grow in importance in the coming years. It remains to be seen if cities and regions are positioned to fulfill their function of providing public services, and whether some locational advantages (including cost benefits) will develop as a result. Future mobility will not only require increasingly integrated land-use and transportation planning, but efficient infrastructure planning as well. As the fabric of society continues to shift, new patterns of mobility are already emerging – and meeting with more and more barriers. Getting about has become essential to the way we live and do business today. And in our global economy, travel solutions determine whether regions will remain competitive going forward. Personal mobility will determine whether people are able to pursue their preferred occupations and achieve the quality of life which they aspire to. However, current discussions surrounding resource scarcity and the desire for sustainability, especially with regards to travel solutions, are also changing how we understand and make use of transportation.

To ensure that we can remain mobile and make transportation sustainable, we have to be clear about what needs are served by travel solutions and which activities result in more traffic. This is the only way to select and allocate planning instruments that are capable of making a specific and positive impact on mobility and traffic. Mobility means the possibility of carrying out activities in different locations. It is quantifiable – in terms of the variety of activities it opens up to an individual or entity by facilitating a change of location, as well as the distances covered and resources required per unit of time. Travel is a basic need and integral to our democratic system. The way we perceive and act on our system of values and the basic rights outlined in the German constitution would not be viable without our understanding of and attitude toward mobility. It is necessary for granting each individual their constitutionally safeguarded opportunities to be an active member of society. Which in turn means that we must have an efficient and effective transportation system. One indicator for measuring this effectiveness is the time needed to travel from one place to another. Everyone has their own personal time budgets – the amount of time they are actually willing to spend on traveling and therefore time in which they generate traffic. The time we have available for moving between locations on the one hand, and participating in activities on the other, imposes limitations. It has played and continues to play a key role in shaping travel and settlement patterns. And we can define an analogous mobility equation for the transportation of goods. Not every potential activity means transportation needs to be used. Traffic is not created until activities related to people or goods require a move from A to B. And in addition to traffic as a means to an end, there is also traffic that is an end in itself – an expression of individual travel needs.

For centuries, there has been an inextricable link between the development of travel options and settlement and economic structures. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when cities were small compared to today, walking was the primary means of movement. This limited the expansion of municipal boundaries and slowed the growth of cities. It was the invention of new technologies such as the steam engine and new modes of transportation such as the railway in the mid-19th century that overcame this problem of space, time, and distance. New forms of production created an enormous demand for labor in the cities, which also began to expand. Efficient means of public transportation such as streetcars and commuter trains first made the massive expansion of cities possible. People could now cover much greater distances in the same time as would have been possible on foot. And this was what allowed them to choose to live further away. The centuries-old medieval cities finally burst their boundaries and spilled out into the surrounding countryside. These developments were later given the name industrialization, or the first industrial revolution. The second and third industrial revolutions followed, further transforming our methods of production, technologies, modes of transportation, types of housing, and the way we lived our lives. In the realm of transportation, this meant the invention of combustion engines, automobiles, aircraft, high-speed trains, and jet planes. Settlement patterns continued to expand in the following decades, as it became possible to travel greater and greater distances in a comparable amount of time. Suburbs and exurbs sprang up, and new forms of production (like just-in-time) that relied heavily on transportation were developed. However, the ever more effective transportation systems not only led to increasing specialization and boosts in overall efficiency, they also caused shifts in the value chain. Entire industries and regions were affected by structural change.

Today we are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, which is different from those that came before it – because for the first time we have had advance warning that a revolution of this kind is imminent. And the anticipated changes to mobility and transportation will not be any less significant than the transformation wrought by the previous industrial revolutions. Partially and fully automated driving, changes in the types of drives found in vehicles, the sharing economy and modern mobility services, rising user costs, increasing regulation of private vehicles, and our fundamental attitude toward travel and traffic have already emerged as factors shaping the transformation of our transportation system. Let us consider the problem of inactive vehicles. There are almost five million managed parking spaces in German cities – often in locations that could just as well be used to solve the problem of scarce accommodations in urban centers. In the average household, a car stands idle for around 95 percent of its service life. Compared to the cost of purchase, this is a relatively low degree of use; one starting point for future mobility strategies could be to aim for more efficient car use. It is estimated that there are around 150 million parking spaces available for the roughly 45 million registered passenger cars in Germany. And these spaces are often highly limited in terms of alternative uses.

In post-war Germany, rebuilding efforts were directed at creating cities that were optimized for cars and other forms of traffic. The urban planners focused on traffic efficiency and continuously adjusted to meet the ever-growing demand. The primary reaction to the increasing volumes of traffic was to scale up the dimensions, with the construction of more traffic routes to counteract congestion on the roads. This expansion of transportation infrastructure served as an incentive for more vehicles on the road, which in turn led to more expansion. For decades, urban traffic management in Germany was dominated by attempts to improve the situation by building more traffic routes, which created more traffic – and only a limited improvement in travel. Current planning approaches view traffic and mobility as a holistic entity, no longer focusing solely on coping with existing traffic volumes, but also looking at why this traffic is generated and whether it can be reduced.

Approaches such as these are only possible by adopting interdisciplinary mindsets and methods. Traffic planners are also seeing a transformation in their job descriptions; today they are “managers of mobility” and the quality of their solutions depends on their ability to work across disciplines. This will help us to prepare for the changes around the corner. It will also help us to transform a vision of “more mobility, less traffic” into a daily reality.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Lutz Gaspers heads up the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Land-Use Planning and Structure Development, offering his clients consulting in the field of spatial planning, consulting on the development of settlement infrastructure and municipal development, consulting on and analysis of demographic change, and mobility studies. His work at the Stuttgart Technology University of Applied Sciences also deals with issues concerning mobility; his area of expertise includes spatial development planning, transportation networks, traffic development planning, mobility studies, IT in traffic planning, and integrated traffic planning.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Lutz Gaspers
Steinbeis Consulting Center Land-Use Planning and Structure Development (Meiningen)