22.–23.05.2024 #polismobility

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Swiss transport planner, speaker, activist

Five questions for Thomas Hug

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In conversation with Swiss transport planner Thomas Hug. As an advocate of the transport revolution, he talks about strategic approaches for more inclusive and environmentally friendly cities. Despite occasional hopelessness, he is inspired by stories of people giving up cars and driving positive change in cities. A court ruling in Zurich underlines: there is no human right for the car-centric status quo. Hug remains optimistic and advocates for sustainable mobility.

Portrait of Thomas Hug

© Thomas Hug

1. Which past or current urban experiments or traffic trials with your participation are particularly important to you?

We are currently working with various cities in Switzerland to implement so-called superblocks: The street system is reorganised in such a way that traffic flows around the neighbourhoods instead of through them. This makes room for new uses in the street space of the neighbourhoods, which are no longer focused on cars but on people. In this way, the streets are completely rethought. I am particularly looking forward to the implementation of these projects. This will bring real change for many cities.

But I also remember an experiment in a small, rather rural municipality in the canton of Bern: the area around the railway station of this municipality was rather unattractive - a big asphalt desert with a car park and a bus yard. We wanted to refurbish a small part of the car park with seating, play areas and shade. In this way, the station should increasingly become a meeting place for people. But although the municipality had made courage its motto in all concepts, the courage was gone within a few days when the first critical voices were raised. Such experiments always bring criticism, no matter how good the preparation was. All those involved must be very well prepared for this.

2. As an advocate of the transport revolution and sustainable mobility: what strategic approaches do you see to make cities more inclusive and environmentally friendly, and how can these be implemented?

Road spaces need to be thought of more holistically: no longer just as transport spaces to get from A to B, but also as living spaces to spend time in. Today, transport planning - obviously - mostly works with transport infrastructures. Instead, we should think the professional field more broadly and also work on supply infrastructure in the future. Because if I only have to walk a few 100 metres to the next shopping opportunity, I am also less dependent on the car. This way, cities can become more attractive and switch to short distances - which creates space on the streets for people who really need to rely on the car.

3. You constantly walk the line between work and activism. How do you find the balance between professional responsibility and your personal commitment to better mobility?

It's really a tightrope walk, but I don't try to be a different person professionally. In the end, our clients know what our ideals are. We also try to live these in our projects - even if we sometimes have to accept a policy of small steps and find pragmatic solutions. But in the end, my profession is just a special form of activism. And I am incredibly happy that we have the chance to work on projects that are fit for the future and that my work is not controlled by outside interests. Anyone who wants to build a new motorway knows that we are not the right place to go for that.

4. What challenges do you see in terms of implementing people-centred transport and spatial planning, and how can this discipline be better anchored in cities?

Inclusive and people-centred cities require above all a willingness to question one's own perspective. It is not what I think that is most important. Instead, the focus must be on the common good and on all those who need more attention in the street space - for example, playing children, people with disabilities and all those who use streets not simply for driving. This also means de facto a "de-engineering" of transport planning. The focus will no longer be on models, standards and figures, but on people and feelings. The professional field will change in this way, and training must also follow suit. As a graduate of a technical university, I still have a lot to learn in this field.

5. Despite occasional hopelessness, you keep the will for a good future. What inspiring experiences, people or developments have strengthened your conviction and driven your work?

Again and again I talk to people who tell me their stories of how they are trying to get away from the car. Recently on the train I had an encounter with two pensioners who sold their car after driving it all their lives. And they were just raving about the freedom they have gained with their General Abonnement - the Swiss equivalent of the Bahncard 100. One mother told me that although she lives in a rural community, she envies the people who manage their daily routine without a car. Such stories touch me and also show that we don't have to just accept the car-friendly status quo. Recently, a court in Zurich came to a similar conclusion. It had to deal with a car park reduction that was contested by residents and individual traders. It came to a similar conclusion: there is no human right for the car-oriented status quo.


Janina Zogass