Wow. Is what I thought when coming across the academic work of Hermann Knoflacher [wiki] this week. His descriptions about our emotional connection to the automobile strikes me as important to note for academia and advocacy. If we are serious about doing transport-transition research that truly tackles the source, not just tickling symptoms, we will have to listen up to Knoflacher’s findings. It can help in the positioning of research questions.

We will not be able to rethink cities and thread cycleways through our road networks if we do not tackle the big issue: cars and the space they claim. Reading and listening to Knoflacher feels good. It’s like finding a solid foundation to stand on. I feel relief and excitement. (Yes, sorry, this is a blog by a PhD researcher, but it’s not void of outbursts of joy and a loose bloggy writing style.) Besides academic papers, Knoflacher, under some duress no doubt, has written a couple of popular books. They, too, look like exceptionally good reading.

  • Stehzeuge: Der Stau ist kein Verkehrsproblem (2009) ISBN 3205783980 bookbutler search
  • Virus Auto: Die Geschichte einer Zerstörung (2009) ISBN 3800074389 bookbutler search
  • Verkehrt! Knoflachers plädoyer für ein anderes Leben (2013) ISBN 3990140795 bookbutler search

Academic paper

There is an academic paper in English by Knoflacher. “From myth to science in urban and transport planning” by Hermann Knoflacher, 2009, downloadable here. I warmly recommend it for your reading.

The paper says “Benefits from time saving can not be calculated any more and car traffic flow is only the effect of mistakes in parking organisation.” Just like a fusion of his fellow professors Shoup and Metz: it’s exactly what they would say if they had a chat with each other.

Knoflacher continues “In human history, myths appear when society is not able to understand or explain phenomena in the surrounding environment. … Things in this technically dominated [engineering, planning] field happen outside the perceptional borders of one’s senses without direct feedback to one’s actions. The causal loop between cause and effect is cut and this is the breeding ground for the myths in the prevailing transport engineering society as well as in the urban planning society. … The city is therefore the built expression of the social structure of the society that created it.” And Lefebvre, Harvey, Soja and Jacobs would agree.

There is a clear sense in his work, that traditional design and the prevailing systems are stressing and stretching cities too far, going beyond econcomic and environmental ease and social justice “Only few, like the rich or powerful, were able to separate themselves from the society or the social network of the urban population as long as this society accepted their extraordinary position or was supporting it for some reason.” He talks about the importance of body energy, balance, sustainability and human scale of cities and transport systems. Functioning cities follow “the laws of human behaviour.”

The paper starts with cathartically refreshing sentences (breaking quite a few taboos in their contents), and it ends with a bang too “Due to the far-reaching effects of structural changes in the transport system on economy, social systems and environment, advisers and experts have to understand the system behaviour they are dealing with. If they believe in traditional myths, ‘growth of mobility’, ‘time saving by increasing speed’, ‘freedom of modal choice’ they are not qualified to treat technical transport systems in a responsible manner on the level of transport and urban planning.” (my emphasis)

It’s nothing less than the underlying traditionally-evolved system cities are fighting when going on a transport transition. So much about the scale of the problem, but what Knoflacher says about our relationship to the car should be of tremendous interest when framing research and campaigns too.

Video 1

In this 32 minute video filmed at the opening ceremony to a future city conference Knoflacher says:

  • “The car just kind of slips inside our brain stem (oldest part of the brain) and turns your head and your view of the world.”

  • German (original) “Das heißt, da schlüpft das Auto in uns hinein [Stammhirn], und dreht von Innen her die Sicht der Welt.” Source 14min51sec


  • “Cars are closer to us than anything, even kids.”

  • German (original) “Die Autos sind uns näher als alles andere, als die Kinder” Source 16min14sec


  • “The symbiosis of person and car creates a new lifeform. That is the car driver.”

  • German (original) Dadurch, daß der Mensch sich mit dem Auto verbindet, entsteht ein neues Lebewesen. Das ist der Autofahrer.” Source 19min44sec


  • “Bad politicians (the ones not following evidence, and social justice principles) have a strong tendency to high speeds. It’s an absolute sign for a bad politician. They have the longing that the problem could be solved elsewhere.”

  • German (original) “Und schlechte Politiker haben einen unglaublichen Hang zu hohen Geschwindigkeiten. Das ist ein absolutes Indiz für schlechte Politiker. Es resultiert aus der Sehnsucht, daß das Problem woanders gelöst wird.” Source 26min7sec

And, finally

  • “There are two forms of mobility, the physical and the mental one. Brains, or brawns. If the brawn gets a gas pedal, well, we have seen what happens to our cities.” Loosely translated, too much idiomatics.

  • German (original) Wir haben zwei Formen der Mobilität, die physische und die geistige… wer es nicht im Kopf hat, muß es in den Beinen haben …“ Source 31min30sec

Video 2

This shorter 8 minute video is also worth a watch (in German). Knoflacher says at one point

  • “It is rather important to help car drivers detach themselves mentally from the car.”

  • German (original) “Es ist ganz wichtig, daß man dem Autofahrer hilft, sich vom Auto auch geistig zu befreien” Source, video at 7min19sec

In short, Knoflacher “redet nicht um den heißen Brei” (pardon my German). He tackles our myths and fallacies head-on, through stating the scientific evidence and talking about the emotional system backlash. Grasping the bull by the horns, he sticks his neck out and puts it on the line. Academics and advocates who want to advance cycling transport systems and liveable cities can learn from Knoflacher’s approach, attitude and, yes, bravery to state the science against (and despite or because of) strongly-held myths and belief systems.

Are you feeling uncomfortable when reading Knoflacher’s comments? It could well be the feeling of taboos acting on you.

Of course we have voices like these in England too. I mentioned Metz above, there is also Whitlegg and others. We have to intently listen to them and amplify their messages. (Just where are the women though?)


ADDED 9 February 2016

Holzapfel, H. (1995). “Violence and the car – The consequences of road violence have largely been ignored.” Eco-logica 1(1): 41-44 pdf or online on Eco-Logica website here

3 thoughts on “Homecoming

  1. Interesting – makes me wish I could understand german (put that in the “things to do” pile? 🙂

    Incidentally, the phenomenology of driving is a reason I am scpetical of the inevitability of “driverless cars”.

    I sometimes think that the private car and our attitudes to it are somewhat like Tolkien’s ring. It starts as a delightful thing, “oooh this is so much fun – and it is so helpful to me – and I could do so much GOOD for other people couldn’t I?”. But it eats you up from the inside – and culturally we are all now screaming “my precious!” if anyone suggests we give it up or even use it a bit less.

    Liked by 1 person

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