Upwardly mobile

Hamburg on the move

future of mobility in hamburg
Ready to roll. Source: DPA

Hamburg hasn’t updated its traffic infrastructure in decades. But now, billions of euros are being invested across the city so it can leapfrog into the 21st century.

New transport technology is first being tested on a small scale with the goal of eventually being rolled out citywide. “We want to turn Hamburg into a laboratory for mobility,” says Frank Horch, the city’s senator for economy and transport.

Hamburg opened up its first testing ground for autonomous vehicles in May – a project with €5.9 million ($6.9 million) in funding. There’s another €12 million for automated traffic counting, €2.8 million for traffic jam prediction, and €1.4 million for automated bicyclist counting, plus smaller amounts for managing parking spots and harbor traffic.

All of the projects have one target date on their radars: October 2021. That’s when Hamburg will host the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference (ITS), the most important mobility conference in the world. “We can’t change people’s attitudes with regulation,” Mr. Horch says. “It’s about attractive offerings.” The future requires creative thinking, not with diesel bans.

For example, upgrading to digital traffic lights with sensors would allow the city to analyze traffic flow and timed traffic lights to maximize efficiency. Hamburg would see a substantial improvement in flow if just one-third of the lights were upgraded, says city transport technician Michael Weiss. Currently, just a few lights have been upgraded, but by 2021 it should be half. The project is funded with a little more than €1 million.


Hamburg is a bit late to the new mobility revolution. Subway lines and highways went unfinished during the oil crisis. The city had bike lanes by the 1990s, but citizen protests halted a planned streetcar expansion. When Olaf Scholz, now Germany’s finance minister, became mayor of the city in 2011, mobility was a cornerstone of his platform. He was impressed by the intelligent traffic management projects happening in San Francisco and met with the leaders of ITS. “Hamburg is the best testing field ever: It’s a metropolis in a region of 5 million people and also one of the most important harbors in the world,” Mr. Scholz says.

Under the current mayor, Peter Tschentscher, Hamburg is investing a lot of money in transportation upgrades, including billion-euro subway and commuter train projects as well as bicycle initiatives. The first new subway line since the 1970s will be opened in the 2040s.

A big challenge is getting Hamburgers to opt for public transportation instead of their cars. One idea for solving the so-called “last-mile” problem are networks of electric shuttles hailrf by app to pick up passengers from the bus stop or train station. Deutsche Bahn is an investor in the Ioki service, which began in Hamburg in July; Volkswagen subsidiary Moia is working with the local transportation agency to get 500 shuttles on the roads soon. Also Clevershuttle and carsharing companies Car2Go and DriveNow hope to tie their offerings together with public transportation options via an app.

The local transit operator, Hochbahn, is also testing out autonomous buses – Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation, or HEAT. The 3.6-kilometer line, expected to open in 2019, will run through the historic Hafencity district. The €9.6 million project will show whether autonomous transportation is possible before a city has a completely networked infrastructure.

hamburg ubahn station construction mobility
Next stop: the future. Source: DPA

Environmental protection is a big driver towards electric mobility. Hamburg has diesel car bans on two of its roads, but diesel buses still travel on both. After 2020, Hochbahn is supposed to purchase only electric buses, but manufacturers aren’t able to keep up with the demand. And electric buses are much more expensive, so the federal government is chipping in €25 million towards the first batch of 104 from Solaris and Daimler.

The city and Siemens are investing €60 million in a high-tech commuter train line in the eastern part of the city set to open in 2021. The train will be capable of driving itself, but a conductor will be on board for the foreseeable future. It’s part of a €3 billion innovation project from Deutsche Bahn that will implement the European Train Control System.

Hamburg’s innovations are exciting, but regulation has yet to catch up. German law doesn’t actually allow for driverless buses, cars or shuttles. Temporary permission has been granted through exceptions for experiments, but Mr. Horch says national traffic laws will have to be revised for the technology to be implemented.

So as a mobility testing ground, Hamburg will not only be gathering technological expertise but also regulatory experience. Will on-demand shuttles steal customers from trams and buses? Will private businesses siphon off the profitable parts of future mobility, leaving the dirty work to public transit agencies? No one yet knows what the entire system, merged with traditional train and bike traffic, should or could look like. “It won’t be an entirely new city in 2021,” Mr. Horch says. “Mobility will occupy us for a long time.”

Dieter Fockenbrock is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent for the companies and markets desk, focusing on corporate governance, opinion and rail transport. Christoph Kapalschinski covers the retail sector for Handelsblatt. Grace Dobush, an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin, adapted the story into English. To contact the authors: fockenbrock@handelsblatt.comkapalschinski@handelsblatt.com

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