“More roads are the wrong approach to countering traffic growth”

Between e-mobility, public transport and muscle power: mobility researcher Thomas Sauter-Servaes explains what it takes to achieve a sustained transition in transport – and why people still hang on to their cars.

Text   Daniel Schriber


  • Future

Thomas Sauter-Servaes, Mobility aims to fully electrify its fleet by 2030. What significance does this decision have for the future of mobility? 

E-mobility isn’t everything, but it’s very necessary. We need a change in how our mobility is powered, but it’s important to note that this, on its own, doesn’t constitute a mobility revolution. One key issue is how the electricity for the vehicles is sourced. Although e-cars are becoming “greener”, much more remains to be done in terms of both use and production. The main problem, however, lies elsewhere 


We can’t simply electrify our vehicles and then carry on as before. We need more e-mobility, but we also need more m-mobility.


Muscle power mobility. It’s a fact that some 50 per cent of all urban car journeys in Switzerland are no more than five kilometres, so we would be well advised to promote non-motorised means of getting around. This could be done, e.g. by making towns more attractive for cyclists by introducing wider cycle paths.

In urban settings, bicycles are often faster than other modes of transport. Why do so many people stick to their cars, even if it means putting up with the rush hour? 

Simple: because it’s convenient and because we’re used to it. Inertia plays a major role in the choice of transport. We were all socialised in the back seat, and for many people, the car is still a status symbol. Building more roads and car parks is a sure way of ensuring people won’t part with their cars. 

Politics is partly to blame: the federal government is looking to invest 5.3 billion francs in expanding the motorway network. 

It’s regrettable that we’re – literally – concreting the old model of today’s transport system into the future. There’s a saying in the mobility industry that experience has shown to be true: sow motorways to reap traffic. I’m not surprised that politicians are still investing in this area.

Why aren’t you? 

Politicians want to be re-elected. That’s why many of them peddle populist rhetoric that promises simplistic solutions to traffic problems. I can understand that, but more roads are definitely the wrong approach to countering traffic growth. 

What’s to be done, then? 

It takes will power to change our way of thinking and acknowledge that there are other ways of getting about. What we need are messages that are really clear and attractive. It’s also really important that special interest groups representing e.g. the car and public transport sectors approach each other with understanding and an open mind. 

Talking of public transport, what role should it play in the mobility of tomorrow? 

Public transport – mass transit – is the ultimate sharing tool and a central component of the mobility transition. It’s both right and essential that we invest in expanding mass transit. To ensure that it continues to be attractive and represent a real alternative, it has to go on evolving. 

In what way? 

We mustn’t reduce public transport to the traditional large-scale modes – train, bus, tram. The term “Mobility as a Service” sums it up well: the aim must be to bundle different forms of mobility and make them easily accessible to customers on a single platform. 

This kind of approach doesn’t exist yet. 

The only way we’ll succeed in breaking down entrenched mobility habits is by offering attractive and efficient alternatives. It’s not enough just to create “pull” measures such as new offers or incentives; we also need “push” measures in the form of reduced parking spaces and revealing the true costs of motoring. 

Technology also has a role to play: the end of 2022 saw Mobility and partners launch the “V2X Suisse” pilot project, demonstrating that bidirectional charging is technically possible. What potential do you see in this development? 

Bidirectional charging harbours enormous potential. If we use the batteries of electric cars in a “swarm” environment, the car can help boost the energy transition. It’s a question of creating conditions that enable technologies like this to operate economically. 

Apart from V2X, what role will car sharing play in the mobility mix of the future? 

Given the increasing urban space problem, the idea of being able to use a wide range of vehicles that one doesn’t have to own is an elementary component of an intelligent mobility policy. Car sharing is an ideal complement to public transport by addressing situations where cycling or the train are less suitable. But we’re still a long way from seeing its full potential in this area. 

In what way?

Digitisation offers the opportunity to significantly simplify access to initiatives like this. AI-supported personal assistance systems will change the choice of transport and make it more rational. User preferences will be stored in the cloud instead of in the vehicle, so that the user interface of rental vehicles adapts almost automatically to individual preferences.

Finally, let’s peer into the future: what will mobility look like in 20 or 30 years’ time? 

No one knows. And it’s hard to make a prediction. There are simply too many things to take into account. 

Then let me ask this: are you optimistic about the future of mobility? 

Unfortunately, I don’t see too many grounds for optimism right now. One problem is that we’re not yet really feeling the effects of climate change. Or to put it another way: we’re not yet suffering enough to be prepared to change our habits. That said, in my role as a mobility researcher, I’m condemned to be confident, as it were! 

What do you mean by that? 

It’s crucial that we as a society get together to develop a new vision of mobility. What should the towns and cities of tomorrow look like? How do we see coexistence evolving? If we actively address these questions and then draw the appropriate conclusions, the transition is feasible. It takes will power and stamina – but it will be worth it. 

Your browser version is no longer supported

Update your browser or use an alternative. We recommend using Google Chrome, Safari, Edge or Firefox.