Around the world, the densification of living and traffic is a growing issue for cities to tackle. When it comes to challenges like pollutant and noise emissions, congestion and the limited amount of public space, the BMW Group sees innovation as key. That’s why it is helping cities provide efficient, attractive and sustainable solutions that meet the mobility needs of their citizens while increasing the quality of life in urban areas. The BMW Group is partnering with selected cities and metropolitan regions to help make the necessary innovations happen.
One of them is Rotterdam and its Erasmus University. Together, the city, university and the BMW Group are working with urban planners, experts and local citizens to discuss current problems and develop and pilot visions for the future.
Vincent Karremans, 37, is Vice Mayor, responsible for Enforcement, Public Space and Transport. In this interview, he talks about some promising pilot projects, social pressure to re-park and the future of cars.
Mr. Karremans, why is your city partnering with a carmaker?
Rotterdam faces some major challenges: a growing population, pressure on the housing market, congested roads, and the transition that’s needed in terms of energy supplies and mobility. With transport planning in particular, we know what it means when tens of thousands of people and tonnes of goods need to get from A to B every day. That’s why we need to come up with clever solutions and ensure the city remains safe, liveable and accessible to everyone.
BMW and MINI know all about cars, and about what they can do, how people use them and how to develop them further. They also have city-based customers who are happy to try things out and who you can learn from.
Working with the BMW Group, we share our knowledge, develop new concepts together and use the city as a test lab. It’s all about understanding the needs of a city and gradually translating those needs into vehicle specifications. As far as I know, BMW and MINI are the only carmakers to work so closely with cities. And it really does make sense. After all, no one can shape the future on their own. And given our pioneering spirit and our goal of making Rotterdam even more liveable, we’re the perfect match.
What do you mean by a city being “liveable”?
A city is liveable if it’s safe for everyone, has clean air, offers employment and recreation options – and still offers everyone equal opportunities in terms of their mobility needs. To make that happen, we need to make clever use of what little space we have and repurpose some areas that have previously been the preserve of cars. And as we do so, we have to balance a lot of different interests as well. Because one thing is for sure: the only way a concept can succeed is if people find it convincing.
Essentially, we are working towards a city centre with fewer cars. But we still want it to be easy for people to access. Every car that doesn’t go into the city centre is a win. We are already investing heavily in efficient public transport and offering major support for carsharing as well as shared e-scooters and bikes. So far, we have set up 100 mobility hubs with lots of sharing vehicles, many of them at really central places such as stations universities and business centres. In 2024 we are planning to set up another 100. Rotterdam currently has 3,000 e-scooters and 2,800 rental bikes available – 300 of them cargo bikes.
We are also setting up more Park&Ride facilities on the outskirts of the city, for commuters. In one pilot project with the BMW Group, we texted drivers suggesting Park&Ride locations. We found out that they rarely took up the suggestion if they couldn’t plan how to get from the edge-of-town carpark to their destination in the centre. So, we need a dedicated app. But the Park&Rides in Rotterdam are popular even without that. It was also interesting to see what people think of Park&Rides in other cities that they are not familiar with. A lot of them said that’s exactly where they would like to use Park&Ride, if only they could pre-plan their journeys.
So, won’t cars have a role to play in the city of the future anymore?
Our aim is to achieve a car-free inner city, but we will still need cars in the city in the future. A lot of people depend on them: commuters who can only get to their destinations by car or who work nights, the elderly, the infirm and for example people with physical disabilities or lots of luggage.
Studies by the BMW Group in other cities show that about 32 percent of car owners would be very reluctant to give up their cars, either because they need them on a daily basis or quite simply because they enjoy driving. It’s going to be difficult to get through to them, but with almost everyone else, the situation is quite different: 25 percent of car owners feel it’s important to have their own car, even though they hardly ever need it and tend to use additional modes of transport. And then there are the 33 percent of car owners who hardly use their cars and are not even particularly attached to them. So, there’s huge potential.
The crucial point, of course, is for as many of the remaining cars in the city centre as possible to be electric and therefore zero-emissions. One particularly successful project with the BMW Group was the “eDrive Zones”, in the city centre. If a BMW hybrid comes into an eZone from outside, it automatically switches to electric mode. How convincing and constructive these kinds of zones are, is evident from the speed they were rolled out beyond Rotterdam: 153 European centres now have them.
To make the city attractive for electric cars, we need to do a lot to develop the charging infrastructure, of course.
What’s the situation in Rotterdam as regards charging infrastructure?
By 2030 we need 8,000 charging points. We have 5,500 so far, so we need another 500 a year to get there. We’re going to make it.
As in every city, there’s another important point too about the usage of the charging network: we have to prevent cars from blocking charging points for hours on end when their batteries are already fully charged. If we look at the steadily increasing number of electric cars, that could become a problem in the future.
We have actually proactively carried out an exciting project about this topic with BMW and MINI. It’s called Charge&Repark. We investigated whether we could encourage people to move their cars from the charging point when they are charged by sending them a text message. It turned out that we were able to convince 8 percent of them to move their car to a nearby parking space so as to free up the charger for someone else. We tried out various reasons that might encourage them: the most effective one was to tell people that “most electric car drivers move their car when it is fully charged”. The social pressure of an altruistic argument like this seemed to have an effect. From that, we can conclude that the existing infrastructure could be used more efficiently. If we extrapolate the pilot results to 650,000 drivers of electric cars in the Netherlands, we could gain an additional 5.9 million charging hours per year without having to invest in the charging infrastructure. So, those are really important findings.
For us as a city, there’s another crucial factor too: the electricity grid has to be able to handle all these electric cars, and at peak times we will need to reduce the load. So, that was the subject of another pilot project with BMW: Bidirectional Charging.
What happens in bidirectional charging?
When we charge our municipal refuse trucks, we suddenly have very high levels of consumption. But our electricity grid is not set up for that, and building a new one with additional power cables in the ground would be really expensive. So, with this project, we extended the infrastructure in a different way. We partly did it by introducing an electrical buffer. The company Alfen, which specialises in energy storage, fitted ten BMW i3 cars with “super-batteries” that store 400 kilowatt hours of electricity which they can feed into the network when and where it’s needed. Another part of the solution was for municipal employees to be able to use two BMW i3 cars with bidirectional charging. And that’s how we were able to handle peaks in demand much better.
In a few years from now, hopefully most electric cars will have bidirectional charging so they can help reduce the load on the grid. Admittedly, we don’t yet have the infrastructure for that, but it’s important to have visions around ways of rethinking the car.
What other visions do you have?
The car is going to take on a new role in other respects as well, for example by providing valuable data – especially given that we want to regulate traffic flows digitally, more and more. Take real-time traffic data and traffic pattern analyses, for example. They give us even more of an insight into where and when there is what kind of need for mobility. Also conceivable in the future would be a price model that makes car-sharing cheaper if the driver chooses an alternative route rather than the most direct one. That would allow us to ease the traffic situation at peak times.
In the first co-creation workshop between Rotterdam and MINI – in conjunction with energy and mobility experts, local residents and creatives – we explored a whole series of questions: What should sustainable urban mobility look like? What role should the car take on, to remain relevant and deliver a real value-add for cities, residents and visitors? And what types of cars, features and business models do we need?
The workshop generated all sorts of ideas that won’t be implemented immediately, of course, but are really, really interesting nonetheless. For example, an individual module with a Lego-style click system that turns a two-seater into a four-seater or a small transporter. Or the idea that someone driving a particular route could take parcels, children or older people with them to drop off with someone else. We also talked about whether cars could have similar functions to trees, with special paints that absorb pollutants, like air filters.
That sounds pretty crazy!
True! But shaping the city of the future takes creativity. And BMW and MINI are the right partners to deliver it.