Human-centric mobility advocate Katja Diehl shared with us some of her insights into the car-free movement, the story behind her business and podcast ‘She Drives Mobility’, and her personal motivations for activism. Katja focuses on fostering diversity, making women and other marginalised groups within mobility visible, and changing mindsets to pave the way towards healthier, more liveable cities.
From ‘Mobility Aquariums’ to Car-Centric Cities: How We Got Here
“When it comes to the idea of car-free cities, people are not really able to think about it as a concept. People’s initial reaction is always ‘no, surely it can’t be that way’ – because they’ve never been able to visualise the alternative,” says Katja when asked about her perspective on the problems that modern cities today are facing when it comes to mobility.
“We have a car addiction, and we need to find our way out of it. Before there were cars, cities were like ‘mobility aquariums’, as I like to call them. People would stop, make eye contact, and socially interact with one another when travelling by foot or horse and cart. But cars are like this closed up room where no one can speak to each other. Cities are just getting more built up with higher and bigger buildings and infrastructure – there is no human contact anymore between people.”
Katja says that now people who live in cities are forced to accept that they are overcrowded with cars and not ‘nice’ places to live and that often we are told if we want to be somewhere nice, we have to retreat into more rural areas – but why should it be this way?
“Everyone enjoys a car-free weekend, so why do they return on Monday? I like my urban lifestyle; I don’t want to feel as though I have to go somewhere else to feel safe and happy – it’s about time we start to take back city space for the people who live there.”
We Must See Cities Through the Eyes of Our Children
To get around the struggle to visualise what life would be like with minimal cars, we should change the narrative to designing children-friendly cities instead.
“When you say that a child should be able to live and play safely in the street, it opens the door a bit because people begin to see things through a more empathetic lens. When you consider the perspective of a child, it really opens your eyes to the ridiculousness that they cannot be free in their freest moments of life.”
Katja drew upon her own experience from the first coronavirus-induced lockdown in Hamburg whereby children began to play in the streets again and paint with chalk on the roads. She elaborated that this made her question why we had designated parks and playgrounds with fences around them for children when really the streets should be their space too.
“Children are the gateway to overcoming the fear that adults have about cities without cars”
“The children in Hamburg had fun drawing things with flowers, trees, and animals. And I found this really interesting because children are actually able to envisage a world without cars – because playing on the roads has become their new normal during the lockdown.”
She also highlights that it’s essential to consider children to showcase that there is a new generation coming – and they have a right to live in a healthy city.
The ‘Driving Force’ Behind She Drives Mobility
Before starting She Drives Mobility, Katja worked in the corporate sector as a communication’s specialist and journalist.
The ‘lightbulb’ moment for her was when she would go to the grocery store and see that cars were preventing elderly people from crossing the street. “I get so angry when I see this happening in everyday life – for me, it is so unjust.”
“That’s when I decided to start ‘She Drives Mobility’ around two years ago. At the start, it was difficult on my own as a one-person business. I realised that being the only female leader is really hard.”
“From my business and later podcast, I’ve been able to build a strong network of women in mobility. I wanted to ask them what their female approach was, and why they came into the business – to my surprise, almost all women said it was by mistake, or that they didn’t plan for it to come about this way. Perhaps there is a blind spot when it comes to women in mobility and urban design. You have a problem when there is a homogenous environment with people who don’t have children, or who don’t have to do care work only making the decisions.”
“Most people building up mobility are car-drivers, and therefore only see the environment from inside of the car.” Katja notes that perhaps if these decision-makers were to become a pedestrian or cyclist for a week, they would actually understand the problem.
“For Me, It’s About Justice…”
Katja says it’s not only about a lack of female perspective in mobility… it’s also about recognising that different ethnicities, children, the elderly and disabled community are not being involved as much as they should be.
“We need to tell people that car mobility is a privilege. It isn’t normal that we are giving people parking spaces for free. For example, in my city, you have to pay 400-500 euros per month for a room in an apartment that is the same dimensions as a parking spot, and this just isn’t right.”
Katja says that the way to deal with this injustice is by putting some prices on public ground.
“I don’t believe the narrative that if you put a price on public spaces it will necessarily affect the poor – because the poor already don’t own a car. Owning and running a car is expensive, and it’s already a privileged mindset to assume that the poor will be affected by car pricing measures.”
“Those who are not paid enough to own a car are using public transport, walking and cycling – and by restoring these things you are also restoring justice.”
For Katja, it’s really about getting back to two main questions: “how can we make our cities equitable and protect the vulnerable?”
Katja’s Advice to CityChangers
Lastly, we asked Katja if she had any advice to aspiring CityChangers who wish to follow in similar footsteps.
Firstly, CityChangers should know that change starts at home. “Outside my apartment, there is a space dedicated for disabled drivers. There is a disabled person who lives in my building, yet people are always parking their regular cars there and using it as a parking lot. We need to start by calling these people out and flagging these kinds of problems. Start by looking at what you can do in your own neighbourhood, like an urban gardening system or having a street party at the weekend.”
She also said that change is a lot about communication. “You will always find a group of people who are willing to come together to change the city for the better. But sometimes people who want to change the world are so against each other because it’s always about who can do it better – when really it’s not. We should be communicating with one another and forming teams for the greater good.”
In a nutshell, Katja says that people who really want to transform their cities should not focus on making huge plans but putting the small steps together to achieve a big change overall. “Every step counts – you must go, and go in the right direction…”