HEIDELBERG, Germany – Eckart Würzner, Mayor looking to make his city emission-free, is not particularly impressed with the promises made by General Motors, Ford and other major automakers to renounce fossil fuels.
Not that Mr Würzner, the mayor of Heidelberg, is against electric cars. The postcard-perfect city in southern Germany offers residents who buy a battery-powered vehicle a bonus of up to 1,000 euros. You will receive an additional € 1,000 if you install a charging station.
However, electric cars are at the bottom of the list of tools Mr. Würzner is using to try to reduce Heidelberg’s impact on the climate. This has given the city the home of Germany’s oldest university and an 800 year old castle ruin, a reputation as a pioneer in environmentally conscious urban planning.
Mr Würzner’s goal is to reduce dependence on cars, regardless of where they get their juice from. Heidelberg is buying a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses, building a network of bicycle highways to the suburbs, and designing neighborhoods to discourage all vehicles and encourage walking. Residents who give up their car can use public transport free of charge for one year.
“If you need a car, use car sharing,” said Würzner in an interview in the Heidelberg town hall in the Baroque style, which was almost deserted due to the pandemic. “If you cannot use car sharing because you live too far outside and there is no mass transport, then use the car, only to the train station and not to the city center.”
Heidelberg is at the forefront of a movement that is probably strongest in Europe but has a presence in numerous communities around the world, including American cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, Ore. The pandemic has given many citizens a taste of what is dense, crowded urban areas would be like without so much traffic, and they like it.
Vows by automakers including GM, Ford Motor, and Jaguar Land Rover to forego fossil fuel abstinence last month are a tacit admission that if they don’t radically clean up their actions, they won’t be welcome in cities at all. Even then, the tide of history could be against them as city planners try to free space that is now occupied by vehicles.
Dozens of cities in Europe, including Rome, London and Paris, plan to limit downtown traffic to zero-emission vehicles over the next decade. Some, like Stockholm and Stuttgart, the German home of Mercedes-Benz, are already banning older diesel vehicles.
National governments are increasing the pressure. Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovenia say they will ban the sale of internal combustion cars after 2030. The UK and Denmark say they will do so in 2035, only allowing hybrids after 2030, and Spain and France in 2040.
Such letters of intent “are sure to drive vehicle manufacturers forward,” said Sandra Wappelhorst, a senior researcher at the International Council for Clean Traffic in Berlin who is pursuing plans by companies and governments to phase out internal combustion.
Heidelberg, a city with 160,000 inhabitants on the Neckar, which this month threatened to flood its banks after unusually heavy rainfall, gives an insight into the appearance of a future car-light city.
Heidelberg is one of only six cities in Europe that are categorized as “innovators” by C40 Cities, an organization that promotes climate-friendly urban policy and chaired by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York. (The others are Oslo, Copenhagen, Venice, and Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.)
Actions taken by the city to make cars irrelevant include building bridges that would allow cyclists to bypass congested areas or cross the Neckar without competing with motor vehicles for road space.
Buildings are also important. The city has reduced the energy use of schools and other urban buildings by 50 percent over the past decade, which is no small feat considering many of the buildings are hundreds of years old.
Battery-powered vehicles don’t pollute the air, but they take up just as much space as gasoline models. Mr Würzner complains that Heidelberg still suffers from traffic jams, even though only about 20 percent of the population use their cars. The rest go for a walk, ride a bike or take the electric buses that drive through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town.
“Commuters are the main problem that we have not yet solved,” said Würzner. Despite the pandemic, traffic was heavy on a weekday.
Electric cars are also expensive. At current prices, they are inaccessible to lower-income residents. Political leaders must offer affordable alternatives such as public transport or bicycle routes, said Ms. Wappelhorst from the Council for Clean Transport.
“In the end, it’s not just about cars,” she said. “You need the whole package.”
Heidelberg’s kilometer-long pedestrian zone, which is usually overcrowded with tourists but has been almost empty recently due to the pandemic, is considered to be the longest in Germany. The best showcase for the city’s zero-emission ambitions, however, is a former freight yard on the outskirts of the city.
Work on Bahnstadt began in 2009. The vacant lot, which had to be freed from three unexploded bombs from World War II, offered the planners a blank board with which they could create a climate-neutral neighborhood.
The modern multi-family houses, architecturally the opposite of the baroque city center of Heidelberg, are so well insulated that they require almost no energy for heating. The heat they need comes from a system outside the neighborhood that burns waste wood.
Cars are not banned from Bahnstadt, but there is almost no traffic. Most of the streets are dead ends. Apartment buildings are arranged around spacious inner courtyards with playgrounds and connected by sidewalks. The one road that runs through the triangular neighborhood has a top speed of 30 kilometers per hour, or less than 20 miles per hour. Bicycles have right of way.
The Bahnstadt with 5,600 inhabitants, which is still growing, has its own kindergarten and elementary school, a community center, two supermarkets, several bakeries and cafés, two bicycle shops and six car sharing stations with two electric vehicles each. Heidelberg main train station and a tram stop are just a short walk away. A bike path follows the route of an old railway line into the city center.
There are jobs too. Bahnstadt has several large office buildings, one of the tenants of which is the German subsidiary of Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturer of consumer goods such as Clearasil and Woolite.
“The idea is to return to the classic early town, where life and work are closely linked,” said Ralf Bermich, head of the Heidelberg Environmental Protection Agency.
Dieter Bartmann, who was one of the first to move to Bahnstadt in 2012, owns a car, but he reckons he drove it about 20 kilometers or 12 miles in January, mainly to the supermarket to stock up on bulky staples Carry on the bike.
Mr. Bartmann, a former manager at SAP, the software company headquartered in nearby Walldorf, was sitting on a bench on a promenade that borders on one side of the Bahnstadt. The area is closed to motorized traffic and overlooks farmland. Runners, cyclists and people on inline skates glided by.
It looked idyllic on a sunny winter’s day, but Mr Bartmann, former chairman of the Bahnstadt citizens’ association, said there was still room for improvement.
He would like to do more to keep cars out, for example by blocking that through the street. Some buildings have underground garages, but these are not built for electric cars and do not have easy charging points. The paved promenade is not wide enough, said Bartmann, which leads to conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians.
But he added, “This is a high level complaint. You have to be realistic. “
Mr Würzner, the mayor, said his goal was to make Heidelberg climate neutral by 2030, an ambitious goal. The city is planning to generate its own wind and solar energy and is installing a hydrogen filling station for a fleet of 42 buses that run on hydrogen fuel cells. The city wanted to order hundreds of buses, but Mr. Würzner complained that bus manufacturers had been slow to respond to the demand for zero-emission means of transport.
“We can’t get enough,” he said. (Daimler, which manufactures buses in Neu-Ulm, about two and a half hours from Heidelberg, does not yet sell a city bus that runs exclusively on hydrogen.)
Mr Würzner, who drives an experimental hydrogen-powered Mercedes, admitted that not every city can afford to do all the things that have made Heidelberg a showcase for environmentally friendly planning. The University of Heidelberg, one of the most renowned universities in Germany, has produced numerous research institutes that offer a solid tax base. The residents are usually well educated and wealthy.
“It is true that the city is in a pretty good financial position,” said Würzner.
But he said he had often heard from mayors in Europe, the United States, and Asia who wanted to emulate Heidelberg’s strategy.
“We all know we have to go in that direction,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how fast.”