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Finding Solutions to Mutual Issues

When it comes to how Germans choose to travel, there are a lot of ways they’re similar to Americans.

Despite a strong mass transit system, the automobile is still the most dominant form of travel in Germany, with 658 motor vehicles per 1,000 people in that country and 97 percent of men and 95 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 49 years old licenses to drive.  And like the U.S., German Millennials are opting for transit instead of cars, with the amount of licenses drivers falling to 89 percent of men and 90 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 29 years old.

But unlike the U.S., German political leaders are showing a strong commitment to sustainability with plans to increase the number of electric cars from its current 12,156 to 1 million by 2020, and a commitment to get off all fossil fuels by 2050. So, when it comes to finding ways to green U.S. transit systems, the Germans are ready to answer the call to action.

“I think the future is multimodal transportation on demand,” said Sandra Wappelhorst, senior expert, from the Innovation Centre for Mobility and Societal Change. “Especially in the urban areas.”

Wappelhorst and other German and American transportation leaders and industry innovators came to Chicago May 13 as part of the energy efficient  transportation systems business conference and delegation put on by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, where they discussed issues in transportation for both countries and the solutions they may be able to offer.

While German planners have the advantage of Raumordnungsgesetz, ROG, which is the country’s regional planning act, many authorities in the U.S. lack the same regulatory powers to control sprawl and growth. However, German experience in how to best address issues with sustainability can be translated to this country.

Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) said his agency faces a host of issues trying to better connect the Chicagoland region and create a sustainable transportation network offering options to commuters and visitors. He said the city is built as an area that moves things, but it needs to slow down or stop sprawl going forward.

But in order to maintain the status quo, Blaknehorn said the area needs to spend $335 billion on transportation needs and in order to improve it, $385 billion is needed.

“The status quo isn’t enough,” he said. It doesn’t work.”

Christopher Bushell, chief infrastructure officer/senior vice president of the Chicago Transit Authority, echoed the concerns, saying many of the system’s infrastructure is more than 100 years old and is a “brutally antique system.”

“It’s not comfortable,” he said. “It’s used by a lot of middle class commuters, but not middle class families.”

Blankenship said there are positive signs of change in Chicago, such as the booming success of the Divvy Bike Share system and the commitment to making changes by area leaders.

The evolving technology in electric vehicles is a hot topic in sustainable transportation and it’s something that could only be a few years away from happening.

Thoralf Knote, department head for the Fraunhofer Institute for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, said electric drives are of interest in Germany given the country’s quest to get off its strong  dependence on Russia for oil, which he said supplied 30 percent of the country’s total supply in 2012. Electric is something worth exploring, Knote said, because hydrogen buses were disappointing, fuel cell buses are very expensive and hybrid buses are not universally deployable if you want to realize fuel savings costs.

When it came to CNG buses, he said German operators can’t get rid of them fast enough, given severe reliability issues.

“They’re simply sick of them,” he said.

Although electric drive buses may still be a few years away in terms of getting desired range from an operator, Knote said the electric trolleybus is something that’s still a viable option that can now be ran 60-65 percent catenary free.

“Some people call it old fashioned technology,” he said. “I like to think of it not as old fashioned, but as very reliable, mature technology.”

Knote said there are several national European programs having researchers  work to improve electric drive buses, such as energy storage, energy transfer to bus, energy efficient auxiliaries, and increase energy efficiencies in electric bus HVAC systems.