DW Akademie recently reported that Germany would like to experiment with making public transportation free in 5 of its cities to explore if this can help it meet the pollution norms of European Union. The question is if this is the approach that will produce the results that it is expecting to achieve. This in addition to the policy to ban all petrol vehicles by 2030.
This is a classic example of what I call a wicked problem. This problem is so multi-faceted with so many different implications that it is extremely difficult to solve. Before we even go looking for solutions to the problem, we need to first understand the real nature or cause of the problem. When we dive deeper, we get to know that the people living in Germany are already aware of the fact that it is important to reduce pollution. In an ideal world, they might even be willing to take public transportation instead of taking their cars out. Some of them already carpool to work. They know that the more cars on the road, the more traffic jams and more time spend sitting in a car (which might or might not be productive, depending on what they are doing in the car while waiting for them to cross the traffic jams.
So, why are more people not taking public transportation? I think we need to delve a little deeper here.
- Is taking public transport faster? I think it is important for the answer to this question to be an astounding “Yes” in order for behaviour change (from using private cars to using public transportation) to happen.
- Is taking public transport convenient? If we have to walk about 15 mins to get to a bus or tram stand (at times in extremely cold conditions), you can safely assume that we will prefer taking our cars out rather than taking public transportation.
- Is taking our own car significantly more expensive? For Most people whom we want to influence to take public transport instead of their private cars, making public transportation fee is no big deal. They can very well afford to pay for public transportation if they decide to take it. To get them to ditch their cars, the financial impact needs to be much more significant than making public transportation free.
With wicked problems like these, we need to explore and prototype potential solutions and try them out in small pockets before rolling out to larger and larger communities.
Given this background info, what could the first prototype look like:
1. Create a smaller transportation system for people to use to reach public transport hubs (without having to walk or drive). These could be on-demand buggies that come to your home to pick you and drop you off at the closest public transportation hub (bus, train or tram stations).
2. Implement surge pricing for parking slots during the day in public parking garages & reduce the number of public parking garages by re-purposing some of these into public areas instead (shops, food trucks, public parks, co-working spaces, etc).
Why would this work:
By implementing this combination, what are doing is making it easy to reach public transport hubs and at the same time making it difficult for people to use their car (as it will get more and more difficult and expensive to find a parking slot). This combination would get people to give public transport a try and once they realise that it is easier, cheaper and faster to get around their city using public transport, it will become their default mode of transport.
Of course, this is not a perfect solution. This is only the first of many prototypes but I believe is a great start to solving this wicked problem.
It is important that we make it easier to take public transportation before we start increasing the parking fee. Doing it the other way would be a sure shot way to create public unrest and will never work.
In solving wicked problems like these, we need to be careful and look at the problem holistically before we even try to attempt to solve it. And most of the times, solving these complex, wicked problems takes a bit of creativity and a combination of ideas to address the critical areas to solve the problem.