What do you think transport’s reaction to Covid-19 tells us about the industry and where we might be headed in future?
That’s the key question: where we might go from here, absolutely. We see a lot of changes, specifically from Covid-19, happening in the industry in the last two months. If I were to summarise, it has led to much stronger thinking ‘out of the box’ in terms of sustainable mobility concepts. There are not many good things about Covid-19, obviously. But in terms of the industry, I’d say it’s been an accelerator for products and solutions.
If you look at what we have done, what other companies have done, what cities and public authorities have done – for example, about Bogotá [in Colombia] expanding cycle lanes - I think that’s all great stuff. The question is, how sustainable it will be.
If I look at the public sector in cities, generally what has happened is that people realise even stronger the need for better technology and digital solutions in order to create more sustainable infrastructure and mobility concepts within their cities. When cities open up for bike lanes and greater space for pedestrians, you need to manage that - you need to understand where you do it and how you do it.
While we’ve got quiet streets and pedestrian-friendly walkways and more cycling and cleaner air, the global economy is facing collapse. So we can’t stay here - but can we take some of the positive aspects of what we’re seeing at the moment in terms of pollution and congestion, and perhaps homeworking, and move forward with those? Or do you think people will just rush to get back to where they were pre-Covid-19?
When you open up space for pedestrians, for example, I very much hope that people start to see the many advantages; Nordic countries were actually doing that before Covid-19 quite successfully. Children can play on the streets, there are so many great things about it. What we learn is how good things can be if you reallocate space for different kinds of mobility, that includes pedestrians as well as bikes.
But whether that results in a ‘new normal’ is a different question. What I do see currently - and that’s why I’m a bit careful with talking about a ‘new normal’ case - is that, with a lot of people, I don’t really see a change of behaviour: they behave like there is no Covid-19. But certainly, the longer it’s going to take, the more it is going to force people - and that includes cities and public authorities - rethink, rewind and re-evaluate what’s currently happening.
Do you think that, with public transit in particular, there will be an avoidance problem, post-Covid-19, because people will be worried about infection? There may even be an increase in use of private cars. Falling ridership will not suddenly just increase, simply because the crisis is over?
Well, that depends on the learning curve we just discussed. There has been a dramatic drop in public transportation: Deutsche Bahn is a good example, with the rate dropping to 10-15% of normal. But I’m pretty sure that’s going to move up again, because it is just a great means of transport.
On the other hand, you know, we do see electric cars specifically going up, which I think is also great. If lockdown is going to go on longer, it might result in a change – but if it was over in a month’s time, there’s not going to be dramatic change. But I hope that if people realise about reallocation of space within cities [for other transport modes], there’s a less need for personal cars.
I hope that public transport, sharing modes, et cetera, will go back to normal. We mentioned opening up space for bikes and I think that, generally, is something we need to do. If you look at Europe, for example, now is the time when it starts getting warmer. You’ve got Covid-19 everywhere, but the weather is also one of the reasons why use of bikes has gone up dramatically at the moment. Look at e-scooters and micromobility: one of the reasons is that bikes are just less expensive than scooters at the moment – but I’m pretty sure that e-scooters will come back as well, because they’re just a cool means of transportation in the city.
As we come out of the crisis, there will probably be a lot of consolidation. Companies face quite an economic challenge at the moment. I mean, there’s so many companies out there, which generally is great, but I think due to the fact that many were just starting, and with the limited financial strength, that ultimately leads to consolidation we’ll see across the transportation industry.
What sort of form do you think that consolidation could take?
We’ve got many technology companies out there that deal with mobility in transportation. There are companies like PTV and a lot of start-ups. And what we’ve seen after the 2008-09 financial crisis, there was a lot of consolidation in that industry. Obviously Covid-19 does have already an economic impact, and it will most probably have one in every industry – including ours. Therefore, I think if you are a stronger, larger player, that’s not so much of a problem. But if you are a small start-up, that’s a different topic.
Do you think there are any small steps that cities could easily take, perhaps encouraged by what they’ve seen during this crisis? So not necessarily wholesale change?
Just closing down the streets completely and reallocating space for pedestrians, obviously doesn’t work in a post-Covid-19 world as it does right now. But if we change on a smaller basis, at least then you could have a bigger next step. And so that’s what I hope for.
I think in all cities currently there’s a shift within their perception regarding the different mobility modes. We’ve seen those changes before, you know: less cars, more public transport. So it represents a great opportunity for cities to rethink - specifically the reallocation of space giving more to bikes, for example. I think that’s something which really is a step cities will be strongly considering going forward and acting on. Existing infrastructure [for some cities] is a challenge, because you need to rebuild basically.
That also applies to other forms of micromobility, more space for e-scooters and pedestrians. But let’s see - because I’m still afraid that, as long as the pain point is not high enough or strong enough, there’s a natural resistance to change. And again, that depends on how long Covid-19 is going to be with us.
On the question of cleaner air and lower pollution - that surely is quite a strong message to a world that’s increasingly aware of environmental difficulties?
Covid-19 makes it more visible that you see less pollution - but generally I think that was already true, and that’s why electric car sales went up. So I think that’s a positive aspect. And while we see that decrease in the cities, I think it will cause a rethinking which was already taking place in my view, before Covid-19.
But certainly within cities, the ITS sector has a duty to support that - and that’s one of the duties I see at PTV as well. That was one of the reasons I’ve taken the job, to push cities, public authorities and public opinion towards the most sustainable tools and promote the most sustainable mobility standards. And that’s one of the things we have to do in the ITS sector generally, shaping the future proactively.
Will Covid-19 foster a rethinking that has already started? Yes, I think there’s a fair chance. Certainly the longer the pandemic will be with us, the more likely it’s going to have a very strong impact - unfortunately, also economically - but certainly in terms of creating safer, more sustainable mobility concepts within cities and rural areas as well.
Making predictions is difficult. But what about the commercial effect on the ITS sector? We’re all trying to be as positive as possible about what could happen but presumably there will be companies who simply won’t get through this crisis?
Competition is a great thing. It will foster innovation, with a lot of new companies coming up within this environment. But it’s unfortunate – it’s how life is - there will be companies who won’t survive it. And some of them will be in the micromobility space, some of them will be in the technology space. We’ll see.
You have experience of the banking crisis of 2008. Do you see any similarities at all with now? Do you have any advice for companies now?
What we’ve seen after the banking crisis is a very strong digitalisation of the financial sector - stronger than anyone could have predicted before. Digitalisation is something which was quite on its way already also in the ITS sector, and I think it will gain a much stronger momentum.
I cannot give advice but what I can say is that values - probably more ‘classical’ values - will always help through those processes. Taking a company through a crisis - and I’m doing that for the first time in my life - requires probably traditional values. Among the most important ones, in my view, are discipline and integrity to people. That’s something we’re trying to live with at PTV. And then innovation, trying to solve problems and trying to have an impact - trying to change things.
Being realistic is also probably quite an important virtue! I generally consider myself as an optimistic person, I have to say. There are a lot of existing challenges in regards to mobility and transportation. Some countries are very well advanced: Germany; I mentioned the Nordics before; the Netherlands, obviously – Amsterdam, in terms of bikes, is a fantastic example.
But generally, politicians need to speed up easing regulation. What we saw after the financial crisis is that regulation increased dramatically - which was right to some extent. But technology and transportation, they’ll be on the rise. It’s a very hot topic. If politicians understand the need for change required, then I think the industry is really well up.
I see a lot of opportunities for a company like PTV, which I’ve seen before as well. I see a lot of challenges too, like people rethinking. That’s something where, you know, I’m not saying I’m pessimistic - but more realistic. Because people change their minds very quickly. A lot of people don’t see how serious the situation is, whether it’s in terms of infection risks or in terms of the economic situation.
The key for success for companies, for managers and leaders, is to always try and go the extra mile – specifically, in times like these, of going the extra mile in terms of innovation and that more applies to cities and public authorities being bold enough to apply the necessary changes, like what we talked about in terms of bike space and pedestrian space. Having an impact, I think that’s important.
How difficult have you personally found the Covid-19 restrictions?
I live in Frankfurt, but I work in PTV headquarters in Karlsruhe. I went down there and obviously the building was more or less empty - but I felt I was missing it, and having the social contact face to face, being able to just go to people and talk to them. That’s something I’m certainly missing. And I’m looking forward to when it comes back.
Finally, if you have one message for the industry at the moment, what would it be?
Be optimistic, innovative and strong.