The Playbook for the Post-Covid City – Interview with Philine Gaffron

Dr. Philine Gaffron, Oberingenieurin am Institut für Verkehrsplanung und Logistik
We need a flexible, resilient system that is also useful beyond the Covid period – especially with a view to climate change – mobility expert Dr Philine Gaffron is convinced of this. She teaches and researches at the Institute for Transport Planning and Logistics at the Hamburg University of Technology. Her focus is on the social and environmental impacts of (urban) transport, the interdependencies of transport and space, concepts for sustainable (urban) transport and implementation strategies for transport planning. We discussed how we can create more space equity for different uses and different transport participants, what role spatial quality plays in this and how we can move from theoretical readiness to real change. The interview with Dr Philine Gaffron took place on 28.09.2020. In most neighbouring countries, the number of Covid cases was rising rapidly – in Germany, the number of new infections was still comparatively moderate.

Urban Change Academy: What challenges does the Covid pandemic pose for the transport system?

Philine Gaffron: Many people have changed their mobility behaviour because of the pandemic. They are travelling less, or differently. Public transport is emptier, public space is being used differently. There have been spontaneous reactions such as the adjustment of public transport timetables or pop-up cycle paths. But these are mostly temporary. But even if the current state of emergency changes again, there is no guarantee that further pandemics will not occur. That’s why, firstly, we need a flexible, resilient system that will be useful beyond the Covid period. And secondly, at the same time, we urgently need to make progress in terms of climate protection.

With regards to resilience, it is a matter of creating as much security as possible for everyone. Even for those who do not own a car. In cities like Hamburg, up to 50 per cent of households do not have their own car – these people must also be able to move around as safely as possible at all times – safe from accidents and safe from the risk of infection. To do this, we need the findings of research so that we can ask, what well-founded recommendations can be given to people so that they can structure their mobility behaviour and their use of public space? There must also be the corresponding offers for this.


We live in uncertain times. How does transport planning deal with this?

The tools we need to deal with such situations are already available to a large extent. The keywords are multimodality and mobility-as-a-service. How can we best combine the different services? There is still a lot to try out, to learn, to restructure, to organise better. At the moment, however, the main thing is to maintain this readiness for urgency that we have developed and lived with in the Covid period – we have to change things right now because a disease is threatening us as a society – we have to maintain this readiness and use it in relation to climate change without falling into panic and fear.

We need to build on what we have made possible in the area of mobility and solution-oriented financing instruments, what we have seen at least in small beginnings. And also think of new impulses. We mostly talk about cities, inner cities and densely built-up settlement areas. But, the issues also concern the surrounding communities of large cities, rural or less densely populated areas and the relationships between these spaces. How do people get to the city under Covid conditions? How do commuter links develop? And what are climate-friendly solutions? We should look at the surrounding communities to find out what is needed there. The chances are good that new local structures will then also establish themselves, such as other concepts of local supply or co-working spaces. And if public transport is to become the backbone of the new mobility, we need a good interplay of traditional offers and newer sharing transport modes of various kinds everywhere – both on a spatial and temporal level.


You are an active city dweller. What changes have you seen in the area of city life and culture?

Like so many others, I am concerned about cultural diversity, especially for smaller providers, independent cinemas, smaller music clubs that live off the daily traffic. I can’t imagine that this diversity can be maintained with the current guidelines and possibilities, even if a lot of digital offers are being created in this area. In the summer, it was no big problem to move catering outside, but how do we deal with this in winter? How do we also make it possible for people to meet safely in the open air, free from commercial offers? We have seen an increasing demand for this. In southern European countries it is certainly a bit easier because the weather conditions are different. But also, in Northern and Central Europe, we want to continue to have a public life, get together, use pubs, restaurants and bars. But how do we solve the noise problem in residential areas, for example?


Does that mean we have to redistribute and redesign public spaces?

Yes, and not only because of the consequences of the Covid pandemic. This is a topic that we have been discussing for a very long time in the context of the mobility revolution, that we have been calling for and, in some cases, even trying out, but in many places we have not yet made enough progress: the redistribution, the fairness of space for the various modes of transport and the various uses – mobility, recreation and meeting, culture and catering, trees, and green spaces, etc. We need to look at this even more through the lens of spatial quality; not only because it is part of good urban life, but also because it can offer possibilities that are needed in an extreme situation such as this. In any case, it is a task that we urgently need to make progress with. And for that we need, first of all, good ideas that can be implemented quickly. And secondly, we need development paths, i.e. we can achieve this in the next five or ten years. We can’t wait 20 years until new neighbourhoods with new mobility structures and new railway lines are built, but we have to focus on the existing stock: How can we restructure it so that it can meet the new requirements? And also serves climate protection. And resilience against the climate changes that we are already experiencing.


You talk about developing and implementing good ideas quickly. At what level does this have to take place? Where do you see a need for action?

Of course, each municipality has to implement its ideas on its own – within the framework defined by the federal government and the federal states. I am often asked about good examples in this context: How did it work in Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Groningen? The awareness that something has to change is already quite high, but many municipalities don’t know exactly how to get there; there is a lack of experience. For this, it would be helpful to document decision-making processes well – not only what was done, but also how it came about. How did the city manage to make certain decisions in civil society and politically? Whether it’s the rededication of roads or the decision to ban certain types of drive, such as combustion engines, from city centres from 2025. The authorities often lack staff too.

Finally, it is also a task of civil society to support change processes. In surveys we always read: “Yes, of course we want change” and “Yes, climate protection is important”, and “Yes, we want different mobility and less noise and healthier cities.” But for that to happen, something has to change. We have to close the gap between strategy and implementation, between knowledge and action, between values and reality. The will to change – that is very important. But if people then feel that they cannot have a say, then there are fears, worries, resistance – not always justified, but they need to be taken seriously nevertheless. These are aspects we have to deal with and, for that, we need targeted information and dialogue.


Let’s talk about the topic of working and producing. Many people are of the opinion that they will continue to work from home. Do you see it that way too? What consequences will that have for mobility behaviour?

Yes, I agree, especially regarding business trips and business travel. For many, much more will take place online in the future. But, working from home is only great if you have a quiet workplace, a good internet connection and a laptop – and that is by no means the case for everyone. This is where co-working spaces can help, offering decentralised, flexible workplaces for people who do not want or need to travel long distances to work every day. For mobility, this means that there will be less commuting. And there will probably be fewer – often more expensive – business trips. However, one must also keep an eye on the psychosocial effects. Many people lack real social contact. And, of course, there are many jobs that cannot be moved to the home at all. So how can we organise this optimally in the future?


Is there a credible threat of a two-class society? Some people will tumble freely in the new mobility world, while others will continue to be dependent on their cars? The same applies to the topic of New Work: some experience the home office as a positive change, others don’t even have the possibility.

I am afraid that the differences could become greater. Counteracting this is certainly also a task for city-making, for urban design and of course for traffic planning. To do this, something has to change structurally. People who work a lot from home need the opportunity to meet in their personal environment, in public space. That is very important. But we also need structural changes in the area of work. Because working, producing, consuming – they are all connected. What expectations do we have, which are justified, which do we need to change? Which cycles make sense and are feasible? This is where the topic of the pandemic society seamlessly merges with sustainability demands in the areas of climate change social justice and global economic contexts. In many ways, we have to become more local again. Of course, the city plays a major role in this.


What topics do you think an Urban Change Academy should address?

For me, communication and participation are big issues. How do I talk to people about certain issues without scaring them? How do we keep one another on board? How do you move from theoretical readiness to real change? How do you deal with fundamental opposition? Psychology plays a big role here: how do you get people to want change, to accept it, to deal with it constructively? Of course, this also applies to politics. I would like to learn more about this because I often find it difficult.

The topic of mobility triggers relatively strong feelings in many people, and rational arguments are often not accepted. I would find it very exciting to learn how to broaden our perspective again. This is especially true for the new forms of discourse: social media influence the discussion, especially when certain currents are amplified in echo chambers. That is not always constructive. And this raises the question: how do I deal with this as a city maker, whether I work in an authority, in an office or in academia? How much of it do you have to take seriously? How can I intervene constructively? I think we often still think too much in terms of traditional communication channels.


Thank you very much.


Photo: © Eva Häberle

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