Three recent developments in Berlin push urban mobility to new limits, continuing growing trends to make the private car superfluous in the central areas of the city. The Jelbi app, BerlKönig, and a new autonomous bus are at the forefront of an urban mobility transformation moving faster than ever before.
Launched on 24 September, Jelbi is named for a cool Berlin dialect word for the colour 'yellow', the bright colour of Berlin's public transport system BVG. While major cities across the world are experiencing a boom in alternative transport including electric bicycles, kick-scooters and e-mopeds as well as on-demand rental cars, Jelbi is one of the very first apps to connect all of these options together in one place. As well as offering locations and prices of local rental options, all local bus, tram, ferry, surface (S-Bahn) and underground (U-Bahn) line options are also listed with travel times and prices. Normal taxis have also been incorporated into the system.
Private operators jumped at the chance to be a part of Jelbi, which helps transport users avoid the complication of having multiple accounts, by allowing a one-off five minute registration process to access all transport modes and options.
Registration is simple. Users just upload a selfie, photos of their passport and driving license, and verify a way to pay online. So far, 60% of people who have downloaded the app have taken that step. On average, they book 2.3 rides per week.
Trafi, a Lithuanian startup that built a similar mobility platform in Vilnius, is behind the Jelbi technology. They have also partnered with Prague and Jakarta, and talks are underway to expand to other European cities.
“Jelbi is a solution for people to move to shared forms of mobility - and to avoid a transport collapse,” stated Jelbi head Michel Heider. “People should leave their cars behind and use Jelbi to get around town.”
Why did Berlin decide to take on this transport project as a public project instead of leaving it to the private sector? Two absolute privatisation failures in recent history make the decision clear.
In the 1990s Berlin privatised its water system. This led to serious under-investment resulting in service problems, and some of the highest water prices in Germany for Berliners. A few years ago citizens fought and passed a local referendum forcing politicians to take the very expensive step of remunicipalising the water system, putting it into complete ownership and more beneficial management by the City of Berlin.
The same story happened with housing. After a massive 1990s public sell-off, Berliners now face a huge gentrification problem, with lack of affordable housing across the city. Berliners are regularly taking to the streets by the thousands to demand further confiscation of properties from the most greedy private landlords, and Berlin is now spending billions on buy-backs and affordable public housing construction.
The other compelling reason to develop Jelbi was to avoid the chaos and reduced customer experience inherent when having multiple private apps with 'walled gardens' excluding competitors.
Back to public transport, Berlin's autonomous bus experiment has also got off to a good start. The cute six seat self-driving bus was developed by the French firm EasyMile, which already has autonomous vehicles in over 100 cities. The eight partner project includes ioki, Deutsche Bahn’s subsidiary for innovative mobility solutions. Data collection is to be examined after a five-month test phase to determine the way forward. For three years other German tests have been laying groundwork for an eventual integrated on-call automated bus service.
A new ride-pooling service has also taken off in the last year named BerlKönig, which translates roughly as The King of Berlin. This BVG-run service offers shared environmentally friendly rides offering the same mobility of a car or taxi. The BerlKönig cars used are often electric, and advertising says that the price is almost as cheap as a bus. Users are raving about it, and say it's good value for money.
With all of the growing mobility functions of the BVG, owning a private car in the central areas of Berlin is now being rendered a waste of money, time, and public space. Berlin is pushing to further reduce private car infrastructure to help stop regular air pollution violations, reduce traffic jams and productivity loss, and improve quality of life. Hopefully Berlin's exemplary mobility models can be exported to other forward thinking cities, where users may find getting around has become just as easy and fun as for Berlin's Jelbi users.
Article and photos by Jason Kirkpatrick for Act TravelWise. Jason is a former Vice Mayor of Arcata, California, who doubled the amount of bike lanes within six months of taking office. Now based in Berlin, he is currently organising to make Germany the second European country to have an entirely Fossil Free pension fund.