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Sustainability expert: why Uber hurts public transport

Fighting urban gridlock - a megatopic for megacities. (Photo: Adobe Stock / adisa)

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Angelo Rychel
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Fighting congestion is a worldwide challenge. But the claim “more car sharing, less traffic” has come under scrutiny lately. 2025AD talked to Tilman Santarius, a sustainable digitalization expert.

Tilman Santarius is professor for Social Transformation and Sustainable Digitalization at TU Berlin (Photo: T. Santarius)

2025AD: Professor Santarius, your research covers digitalization and sustainability. What’s the focus of your work?

Tilman Santarius: Our society has been struggling to become more sustainable for decades: to prevent climate change, but also to stop soil loss, preserve biodiversity and improve air quality in cities. At the same time, the digitalization of society has been a megatrend for years, increasingly impacting the economy, education, commerce and the transformation of our energy supply. The big question is: can we leverage this megatrend to help us reach our targets faster?

2025AD: What role does mobility play in that regard?

Santarius: In the mobility sector, I see huge opportunities and risks of digitalization alike. It offers the chance to better organize traffic flows and convince people to switch from motorized individual forms of transport to public and shared means of transport. With the help of digitalization, it could become quicker, more comfortable, potentially cheaper and even sexier to use such forms of transport. But at the same time, if everyone owns a self-driving car in the future, it would severely worsen our problems. Many people haven’t recognized yet how data intensive and thus energy hungry these vehicles will be. Each car generates about 4000 gigabytes a day. This could eventually turn into an ecological nightmare.

2025AD: In the public debate, the data hunger of driverless cars hasn’t been much of an issue so far.

Santarius: The topic is massively underestimated. Everybody is demanding better and faster data connections. Driverless cars are in fact one of the main reasons behind the German government’s push for a 5G standard. But I get the feeling no one has thought of sustainability so far. What kind of driverless vehicles are desirable? Privately owned cars? Shared robocabs? Autonomous trucks for logistical purposes? It remains unclear. I know one thing: if all 45 million passenger cars in Germany become autonomous, then the 5G network will most likely be overloaded. According to my estimates, 1.5 million autonomous vehicles would generate the same amount of data as half of the world population currently online.  

2025AD: Mobility as a service seems to be all the rage right now, whether it’s car sharing, ride-hailing or ride-pooling. Why is such a wide range of new offers popping up now?

Santarius: Investors see one of the biggest future markets. The mobility market has always been very profitable. People need to get from A to B and frequently make use of services to do so. What makes the market even more promising is the prospect of generating data like motion profiles or user preferences that can be monetized in other ways. This is the reason why Google and other non-automotive players are entering these markets, too.

BMW's Drive Now: one of many free floating car sharing options available today. (Photo: Drive Now)

2025AD: All these new sharing services promise to tackle urban congestion, reduce the number of vehicles on our roads and save emissions. Is that credible?

Santarius: In general, I find the sharing approach very reasonable. But I like to distinguish between good and bad sharing. Admittedly, it is not easy to draw the line. For several years now, we have seen services that do not make a positive contribution regarding sustainability. The example of how Uber has actually increased traffic has already been heavily discussed. The city of San Francisco, where Uber is particularly successful, claims that Uber rides have hurt the occupancy rate of the BART, the city’s train system. And that is not desirable at all. It’s fine if people use shared mobility. But public transportation still has the best carbon footprint. If people use these services instead of public mass transit, it will prevent an ecological transformation of our traffic system.

2025AD: In Germany, free floating car sharing services like Car2Go or Drive Now are increasingly popular. Are they a more sustainable option?

Santarius: Those approaches could be part of a viable traffic system – but only if they don’t compete with public transit and seduce customers to use cars when they otherwise wouldn’t have done. We need smarter integration into a municipal transport system.

2025AD: So is it up to communities to get it right?

Santarius: They need to align these services with public transit. Shared mobility offers should be dominant where public transit has gaps or is uncomfortable. They could solve the famous last mile problem for example. At the same time, communities need to make owning a private car less attractive: by reducing parking space, increasing parking fees or expanding pedestrianized areas. We need a mix of incentives and disincentives to create a sustainable traffic system.

Public transport will need to form a symbiosis with digital mobility services. (Photo: Adobe Stock / william87)

2025AD: What could such a symbiosis between public transport and private services look like?

Santarius: First, communities will need to set certain conditions when licensing car sharing providers. Their algorithms should focus on serving routes that aren’t covered by public transit. Second, communities need to enable users to book a multimodal transport chain on the go. Say I plan to use ride-pooling to get to the station, then a train and afterwards a shared bike to reach my final destination – I would want to book all that in one procedure. It must be easy and comfortable for the user.

2025AD: It seems many players are already working on solutions like that.

Santarius: Of course, several entities are working on it, also scientists. But progress is remarkably slow. Part of the problem is that everybody wants to remain secretive. Deutsche Bahn has no interest in the fact that car-sharing providers sell rail tickets on their car-sharing apps or vice versa. I hope we will see some movement here soon. 

2025AD: Could autonomous driving help reduce delivery traffic in cities?

Santarius: I haven’t made up my mind yet. My fear would be that it could increase logistics traffic because it optimizes costs by removing the driver. And anything that optimizes costs usually leads to higher demand. I find that problematic. But I see high potential for digitalization to improve freight management. Today, almost half of all truck journeys are unladen. A laden truck drives from Munich to Hamburg and returns empty while at the same time a laden truck leaves Hamburg to drive to Munich. We can do better than that.

2025AD: Do you see other reasonable use cases for autonomous driving?

Santarius: Yes, take on-demand busses or cabs in rural areas for instance. They are often not economically feasible today because they aren’t occupied continuously. It makes sense to deploy autonomous vehicles for such cases. It won’t destroy jobs but increase mobility.

About our expert:

Tilman Santarius is scientific author and writes on topics such as climate policy, world trade, sustainable economics, global justice and digital transformation. Santarius has studied sociology, anthropology and economics and accomplished a PhD in social science. During his studies, he jobbed for Greenpeace and the Kienbaum Management Consultants. From 2016 onwards, Tilman has been heading a Junior Research Group on “Digitalization and Sustainability” at the Technical University of Berlin and the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW). Since 2017, Tilman is professor for Social Transformation and Sustainable Digitalization at Berlin’s Einstein Centre Digital Futures and Technical University of Berlin, Germany. As of voluntary work, Tilman served as member of the board to the NGO Germanwatch between 2007-2016. Since 2016, he is member of the board of Greenpeace Germany.

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