In 2020, approximately 19 million tons less carbon dioxide were emitted by the transport sector than in the previous year. At 146 million tons, the total emissions for the sector were actually below the upper limit of 150 million tons set by climate protection legislation. This reduction in emissions is largely attributable to the restricted mobility brought about by the coronavirus. To continue this trend after the pandemic requires an ambitious rethinking of transport. Dr. Sophia Becker is professor of sustainable mobility and transdisciplinary research methods and leader of the interdisciplinary junior research group EXPERI at TU Berlin and the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Potsdam. Her research explores ways of creating climate-friendly mobility in Germany.
What are your main areas of focus and interest as a researcher? Are there any issues that particularly inspire you?
Sophia Becker: My research is about analyzing and supporting the transport transition as a socio-technical process of transformation. The term socio-technical refers to both human behavior, stakeholders and measures, as well the new infrastructures and technologies of sustainable mobility. The question of how to create a more sustainable mobility has occupied me for some time. There are many options for redesigning our transport system to make it climate friendly, but these often require a lot of time to be put into practice. This gives rise to a number of interesting questions: Why does it take so long to create a climate-friendly system and why is this so hard to achieve? How can we speed up this process? To answer these questions, we need to work together with stakeholders from praxis to develop transdisciplinary research processes. By doing so, we take the University’s motto “We’ve got the brains for the future. For the benefit of society” one step further and say “We develop the ideas for the future together with society.”
Early February 2021, the Heinrich Böll Foundation published the European Mobility Atlas, to which you contributed a chapter entitled “Cargo bikes: sustainable and resilient transport.” You describe how cargo bikes can be used as a low-emission alternative to motorized delivery vehicles. How can cargo bikes contribute to the transport transition and what needs to change so they can fulfill their potential?
Cargo bikes have the potential to reduce the impacts of traffic in terms of the environment, noise, and health. They are zero emission, take up less space and enable personal mobility, even in times of crisis and emergency, such as we are experiencing at the moment with the pandemic. However, cities need to do more to promote the use of cargo bikes by creating extensive and safe networks for bicycles as quickly as possible. A good example of this was provided by Berlin with the pop-up bike lanes we have seen in some districts.
How does the price of a cargo bike compare to that of a car?
That depends on the type of bike. We now have simple models, which retail for about 1,000 euros, with more compact models costing about 5,500 euros. The operating costs, however, are much lower than those for cars. If we take repair and maintenance costs as well as insurance, fuel, and depreciation into account, then we are talking about somewhat more than 700 euros a year for cargo bikes compared with more than 4,100 euros for a car. In many German cities, it is now possible to hire cargo bikes for free from volunteer organizations.
What was your most interesting or exciting research project?
Actually, I would say my current project EXPERI. EXPERI examines the transport transition as a social-ecological living experiment. My research group uses interdisciplinary methods to examine the transport transition in Berlin. The mobility regulations for Berlin play an important role here. How are they being implemented? What can we as scientists do to support this process?
Have there been any (unexpected) findings in your research work that mark a turning point?
As a psychologist, I used to focus exclusively on individual behavior. However, this excludes many social processes and contextual factors. Political reality is very complex. Without a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of social transformation processes, we will be unable to develop to a sustainable society. This is why I decided to write my dissertation on environmental and technical sociology and work in many interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary joint research projects.
How has the coronavirus impacted your research and your junior professorship?
The coronavirus pandemic has made research in the social sciences more difficult, but more exciting. The pandemic shows the importance of understanding individual behavior and and the role politics plays in guiding it. It has also shown how incredibly important scientific findings are for political organization and crisis management. Regarding my research group specifically, we succeeded in quickly putting together a survey for Berliners about the new pop-up cycle lanes in spring 2020, which, hopefully, has contributed to the further development of this innovative measure.
Do you have a favorite quotation or life motto?
“Only those who change remain true to themselves.” A quotation from Hermann Hesse. Human life is a process of continuous development. As a scientist, I learn something new every day and am able to develop. This is something I am really grateful for. By combining my research and teaching, I am able to share my knowledge with young people and encourage them to think critically and develop as scientists and people. My work is really very fulfilling!
Is there a book you would recommend? If so, which one?
The last novel I read was Effingers by Gabriele Tergit. It is a work with many layers, which artistically recounts the story of Jewish families in Berlin during the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century. A modern and timeless novel written in 1951 and one I would unreservedly recommend.
I particularly like my work at TU Berlin because…
… there is a constructive and collegial culture of interdisciplinary cooperation across the faculties, which helped me settle in very quickly as a new member of staff. The topic of sustainable mobility is so multi-faceted that it can only be properly addressed by interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration, both in research and praxis. New initiatives such as the Climate Change Center have a huge potential to further strengthen networking among researchers in different areas and enable them to work together to make a significant scientific contribution to the transport transition. I am really looking forward to the coming years at TU Berlin!
Interviewer: Christina Camier
Head of the Chair of Sustainable Mobility and Transdisciplinary Research Methods