A day traffic in Berlin, visualized with TomTom data. © TomTom / TIME ONLINE
This article is part of the ZEIT-ONLINE focus "If possible, please turn to Mobility" from our Department X. You can find a selection of other topics here.
Heiko Schilling has been thinking about congestion for a long time. Already in his dissertation, which he wrote in his early nineties, he dealt with the question of how traffic jams could disappear. In the eighties and nineties, he founded several startups (including a system for the online book trade in 1989). Since 2007 he works for the Dutch navigation company TomTom and is responsible for software and data. Schilling was born in Berlin, which is still heard when he speaks. During the interview at the company headquarters on Berlin's Spree shore, Schilling keeps jumping and painting numbers and formulas on a blackboard.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Schilling, we would like to talk to you about why in 2019 there is still something as profane as traffic jam.
Heiko Schilling: A big question. Believe it or not, the question of how we could someday get rid of the jam completely motivates me to go to the office every day.
ZEIT ONLINE: Would that be possible: abolish all traffic jams?
Schilling: That would work, of course. And already today. As a mathematician, I can prove that: If some conditions were met, nobody would have to stand in a traffic jam anymore.
ZEIT ONLINE: Also on highways not?
Schilling: Also not there.
ZEIT ONLINE: What would have to happen?
Schilling: First and foremost, people would have to stop looking for feeling or knowing. Instead, they should listen to their navigation device. Even if it seems today that everyone is guided by a navigation system, the number of connected drivers - that's what we call drivers with navigation - is less than 50 percent worldwide. The other 50 percent of drivers create a phenomenon that we call anarchy in the network - anarchy in the system. The more people drive without navigation device, the harder it is to get rid of traffic jams.
ZEIT ONLINE: That a manager of a navigation device manufacturer promotes more navigation devices, is not so surprising.
Schilling: You asked how to avoid traffic jams. And one answer is: By using traffic data and navigation software to control the flows of traffic. This will also be necessary because our data shows that traffic in the world is increasing daily.
ZEIT ONLINE: Your company claims to own the world's largest closed record on car traffic. Does not Google know anymore?
Schilling: For pedestrians, cyclists, even for public transport this may be true. Not for cars. There we have the largest community of users, around 600 million worldwide, about 30 percent of all drivers worldwide.
ZEIT ONLINE: Your company sells cards to companies such as Apple, which use them on the iPhone, but also to car companies such as Daimler, VW or Renault. With these partners you can generate millions of information about worldwide traffic. Which data do you own exactly?
Schilling: Each individual data point is structured in a simple way: we see a GPS coordinate and a timestamp. Not more. And of course, the data points are anonymous: we do not see who drives, just that someone drives. However, we get a lot from this anonymous data, every day since 2006, long before most people had smartphones. And that's where it gets interesting.
ZEIT ONLINE: Because of all the individual data results in an overall picture of the traffic?
Schilling: Exactly. In Europe, almost 90 percent of all traffic data used in cars comes from TomTom. Look here ... ( Schilling clicks through a program, on his monitor appears a traffic map of Berlin. ) That's the traffic in Berlin in real time. At the moment there is a small traffic jam near the Plänterwald and the Beeskower Allee. What you see here, we see for almost every place in the world.
The mathematician and TomTom manager Heiko Schilling. In the background: the traffic of Amsterdam. © Simon Lenskens for ZEIT ONLINE
ZEIT ONLINE: If you look at these cards daily: What do you think about our car traffic?
Schilling: He's getting more, especially in the cities. I do not just think that, I can measure it. Based on our data, we have been creating a city ranking for several years, showing how traffic is developing in 400 cities around the world. There are cities like Mumbai in India, where on average each trip takes 65 percent longer because people are stuck in traffic.
TIME ONLINE: It usually takes more than an hour to complete a route that normally takes 40 minutes.
Schilling: Yes, in Mumbai there are only a few hours early in the morning when there is no traffic jam. This is a city that I would say is dense.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why is traffic growing so much?
Schilling: There are currently two main drivers. One is growth in the tiger states, in South Korea, China, Singapore. A quarter of all vehicles will be registered there. Another main driver is e-commerce, which is the fact that people are getting more and more things delivered.
ZEIT ONLINE: And that leads to more cars?
Schilling: Yes. Two billion people in the world drive cars. For these two billion, there are 1.2 billion vehicles. These 1.2 billion are added every year around 100 million new cars. That's a growth of more than eight percent. Each year. However, every year millions of cars are scrapped.
ZEIT ONLINE: And in Germany?
Schilling: The number of cars is also growing, but not so fast. Last year, around one million.