HEIDELBERG, Germany – Eckart Würzner, a mayor on a mission to make his city emission free, was not overly impressed with the promises of General engine, Ford and other big car makers to use fossil fuels.
Not that Mr. Würzner, the mayor of Heidelberg, is against electric cars. The perfect city for a postcard, in southern Germany, gives residents who buy a battery-powered vehicle up to 1,000 euros, or $ 1,200, bonuses. They get another 1,000 euros if they install a charging station.
But electric cars are at the bottom of the list of tools Mr Würzner uses to try to reduce Heidelberg’s climate impact, an effort that has given the city, home to Germany’s oldest university and 800-year-old castle ruins, a reputation as a pioneer in urban planning. environmentally conscious.
Mr. Würzner is about to reduce dependence on cars, wherever they get the juice. Heidelberg bought a fleet hydrogen powered bus, build a network “super highway” bike to the suburbs and design the environment to prevent all vehicles and encourage walking. Residents who give up their cars can take free public transportation for a year.
“If you need a car, share a car,” Würzner said in an interview at the Baroque City Hall in Heidelberg, which is nearly empty due to the pandemic. “If you can’t use car sharing because you live too far outside and there is no mass transportation, take a car, but just go to the train station and not to the city center.”
Heidelberg is at the forefront of a movement that may be the strongest in Europe but is present in many communities around the world, including American cities such as Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. This pandemic has made many residents feel what a dense urban area would be like without a lot of traffic, and they love it.
The vow of abstinence from fossil fuels by automakers last month, including GM, Ford Motor and Jaguar Land Rover, is a tacit admission that they will no longer be welcome in cities at all unless they radically clean up their actions. Even then, the tide of history might be against them, as city planners try to free up the space now occupied by vehicles.
Dozens of European cities, including Rome, London and Paris, plan to limit downtown traffic to emission-free vehicles over the next decade. Some, such as Stockholm and Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes-Benz in Germany, have banned old diesel vehicles.
The national government added to the pressure. Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovenia have said they will ban the sale of internal combustion cars after 2030. Britain and Denmark say they will do so by 2035, only allowing hybrids after 2030, and Spain and France in 2040.
Such a statement of intent “definitely encourages vehicle manufacturers,” said Sandra Wappelhorst, senior researcher at International Council on Clean Transport in Berlin tracking company and government plans to stop internal burning.
Heidelberg, a city of 160,000 people on the Neckar River, which is threatening to overflow its banks this month after unusually heavy rains, provides a glimpse into what a future city of car lights might look like.
Heidelberg is one of only six cities in Europe considered “innovators” by C40 Cities, an organization that promotes climate-friendly urban policies and whose chair is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York. (The others are Oslo, Copenhagen, Venice, and Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.)
Among the city’s actions to make cars irrelevant are building bridges that allow cyclists to pass through congested areas or across Neckar without having to compete for road space with motorized vehicles.
Buildings are also important. The city has cut the energy consumption of schools and other urban buildings by 50 percent in the last decade, no small feat when many buildings are hundreds of years old.
Battery powered vehicles don’t pollute the air, but take up as much space as petrol models. Mr Würzner complained that Heidelberg still experienced traffic jams at rush hour, even though only about 20 percent of the population drove around by car. The rest walk, cycle or ride the trolleybus that crosses the narrow, cobbled streets of the city’s old.
“Commuting is the main problem we haven’t solved yet,” said Würzner. Heavy traffic on the last business day, despite the pandemic.
Electric cars are expensive too. At current prices, they are beyond the reach of low-income residents. Political leaders need to offer affordable alternatives such as public transportation or bicycle routes, Ms. Wappelhorst of the Clean Transport Council.
“It’s not just about cars in the end,” he said. “You need the whole package.”
Heidelberg’s one-mile long pedestrian zone, usually filled with tourists but recently nearly empty due to the pandemic, is said to be the longest in Germany. But the best exhibit for emission-free city ambitions is built on a former railroad base on the outskirts of the city.
In 2009 work began on the Bahnstadt, or Rail City. The empty parcel, which had to be cleared of the three unexploded bombs of World War II, offered planners a blank slate to create a climate-neutral environment.
The modern apartment building, which is architecturally the opposite of the Baroque city center of Heidelberg, is so isolated that it takes almost no energy to heat. The warmth they need comes from plants outside the environment that burn wood.
Cars are not prohibited on the Bahnstadt, but there is almost no traffic. Most dead ends. The apartment buildings are arranged around a large courtyard with a playground and linked by footpaths. One road that cuts through the triangular environment has a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour, or less than 20 miles per hour. Bicycles have right of way.
Bahnstadt, with 5,600 residents and still growing, has its own kindergarten and elementary school, a community center, two supermarkets, several bakeries and cafes, two bicycle shops and six car-sharing stations, each with two electric vehicles. The main Heidelberg train station and tram stop are a short walk away, and the bike path follows the old railroad route to the city center.
There are also jobs. Bahnstadt has several large office buildings whose tenants include German subsidiary Reckitt Benckiser, makers of consumer products such as Clearasil and Woolite.
“The idea is to go back to the quintessential ancient city, where life and work are inextricably linked,” said Ralf Bermich, head of the Heidelberg Environmental Protection Office.
Dieter Bartmann, who in 2012 was one of the first to move to the Bahnstadt, owns a car but he drives about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, in January, mostly to supermarkets to buy oversized staples. to carry his bike.
Mr Bartmann, a former manager at SAP, a software company headquartered near Walldorf, is sitting on a bench along the promenade bordering one side of the Bahnstadt. The area is blocked for motorized traffic and overlooks agricultural land. Runners, cyclists, and people with in-line skating skates.
It looks lovely on a sunny winter’s day, but Mr Bartmann, former chairman of the Bahnstadt residents’ association, said there were still things that could be improved.
It wants to do more to prevent cars from getting in, for example by blocking those on roads. Some buildings have underground garages, but these garages are not built with electric cars and do not easily accommodate charging points. The paved pedestrian area is not wide enough, said Bartmann, which causes conflict between cyclists and pedestrians.
But he added: “This is a high level complaint. You have to be realistic. “
Mr Würzner, the mayor, said the goal is to make Heidelberg climate neutral by 2030, an ambitious target. The city plans to generate wind and solar power itself and install hydrogen filling stations for a fleet of 42 buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The city wants to order hundreds of buses, but Mr Würzner complains that bus makers have been slow to respond to requests for emissions-free transport.
“We can never have enough,” he said. (Daimler, which makes buses at Neu-Ulm, about two and a half hours from Heidelberg, has yet to sell city buses powered only by hydrogen.)
Mr Würzner, who drives an experimental hydrogen-powered Mercedes, admits that not every city can afford to do all of the things that make Heidelberg a showcase for green planning. The University of Heidelberg, one of the most prestigious universities in Germany, has spawned numerous research institutes that provide a solid tax base. The population tends to be well educated and affluent.
“It’s true the city is in a pretty good financial situation,” said Würzner.
But he admits that he often hears from mayors in Europe, the United States and Asia who want to emulate Heidelberg’s strategy.
“We all know we have to go in this direction,” he said. “It’s just a question of how fast.”
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