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10 questions about tomorrow for... Katja Diehl

Published November 24th, 2020

There are so many issues that we need to tackle if we want to create a better tomorrow for us all. This time we asked mobility activist Katja Diehl, aka She Drives Mobility, what issues are at the top of her list, where we are at the moment and what needs to change for us to finally start making progress.

1. What are the three most pressing ecological and/or social issues for you right now – and why?

The issues I’m concerned with right now are climate catastrophe, racism and sexism, also because they are so closely intertwined and are part of the unpleasant world that I didn’t question enough in the past. And the pandemic world has opened up old wounds that had only been temporarily patched up with a plaster. People are getting back in their cars because they are afraid of catching the virus. The automobile industry was already in crisis in 2019, but it’s using the coronavirus for its narrative. And women are reducing the number of hours they work to take care of others.

2. When was the first time you really got to grips with these issues and how did it change how you think and act?

They’ve always been there – it’s just that they’re becoming more and more urgent. In retrospect, the reason I left the corporate world was probably because I had to acknowledge that these huge tankers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) change course at the speed that is required. A key factor was the realisation that the problems with cars aren’t God-given, but manmade. That the submissive way I am forced to move around my city as a person without a car is unnatural and inhuman. That the space in cities where cars are parked for free for an average of 23 hours a day also belongs to me. That children are being driven to school in cars because their parents feel that the traffic is too dangerous for them to cycle there.

This unfairness, but above all the narrative that automobility makes everyone mobile, is what spurred me to action. Because automobility is exclusive and not inclusive.

3. What needs to change politically and/or socially so we can finally make progress with these topics?

That’s a very difficult question. I think the first thing that needs to change is that decision- makers in politics and the industry should be less beholden to their donors and instead acknowledge their unconditional wish to avert the climate crisis. There are meanwhile reports like the one from the Wuppertal Institute and Fridays For Future, but also from think tanks like Agora, which outline in great depth what needs to be done. The good news is that we can still achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement. I was positively surprised by that. But we need to make a start on the transformation.

I was also pleased to see the commitment of German daily newspaper taz and SPIEGEL magazine to reporting on climate change. The media also needs to emphasise the urgency of this threat so that people start taking it seriously – instead of just seeing it as one of many “problems”. Climate change isn’t so much of a threat to us, but to the future generations in Germany and other countries, who are already being killed by extreme weather phenomena. The lobby of the future optimists and activists needs to create more space for itself than that of the destructive industries and passivists.

4. How are you doing your bit?

First of all, I’m trying to shed light on as many of my own blind spots as possible. I’ve started referring to myself as racist and sexist, so as to acknowledge that I have been socialised in a time and a world that has instilled that into me. I read a lot about these topics, speak to people and listen to what they have to say. With regards to mobility I have a lot of ideas that I like to share with others. I want to empower people to realise that they can free themselves from their cars and improve their quality of life in the process. And by making this change, to automatically give back the space, peace and air to the people they had previously only borrowed it from. I’d love nothing more than to shout out to everyone: dream as big as you can! Create places for yourselves that you want to spend time in!

5. If you were Finance Minister for a day, what would you do?

I would abolish all climate-damaging subsidies and transfer them to climate-positive sectors. I would think about how we can provide clarity on the 141 billion euros that car traffic costs the general public annually and make sure that society as a whole shouldn’t have to carry the costs, but in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. It doesn’t make sense that people without cars are having to foot the bill.

6. Who inspires you when it comes to creating positive change – and why?

I am inspired by my parents, who send me e-mails after they have managed to see me speaking live (which is now possible due to the coronavirus and everyone working from home) and encourage me in everything I do – always with the advice to “tone it down a little”. My parents were both born during the Second World War but still understand the urgency of the climate crisis. I am also inspired by people like Professor Knoflacher, who began making Vienna car-free back in the 70s. Interviewing him was definitely one of my highlights of 2020. At the age of 80, he is still so charming and cheerful – despite dedicating the last 50 years of his life to the fight against cars. I am inspired by all of the female mayors in Europe (yes, it’s mostly all women) who are calling for car-free cities. Especially Anne Hidalgo in Paris.

7. When I picture the future, I see…

Children laughing and cycling alongside each other through towns and cities without a care in the world. I see a vibrant, varied “mobility landscape” in our cities, where no one needs their own car anymore. I see a lot of public space and greenery where I can enjoy the peace and quiet. Parking spaces have been returned to the cities and we can now enjoy spending time there. People are booking fewer holidays because they can now relax on their own doorsteps.

And those living in rural areas are no longer dependent on having their own cars. Most of the thousands of kilometres of railway tracks that we negligently removed are back in place and many new routes have been developed or extended. Self-driving mini buses will bring people from their front doors to the train station or the next stop. We will enjoy meeting up in person, but we will do a lot from mobile workplaces, which saves us journeys and time. Time is our new currency and it’s more valuable than money.

8. What do you personally want to look back on when you’re older?

In an ideal scenario, all the effort and struggle will have been worth it if it all pays off in the end. I would like to look back on the present time in my life with great satisfaction. And remind myself just how exasperated I was sometimes. And think of the people who joined forces with me and built me up again after every backlash. And who I am still connected with. I want to see my own city, Hamburg, free from cars and full of people. Contrary to what a lot of people say, I’m not doing all of this for me. I want everyone to thrive. I love it when everyone around me is happy. That’s the best feeling!

9. One thing that always gives me hope is …

…that every change began with a first step that was ridiculed at the time. The women who fought for their right to vote. Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. The fight for same-sex marriage. All of that began with one individual who not only questioned the status quo, but also actively went against it. Even if it was simply by refusing to conform to unjust behaviour.

10. What’s your tip for anyone who wants to initiate change, but doesn’t know where they should start?

My tip is: start somewhere. Every little bit counts. Donate to organisations that you believe in. Have a look online to see whether there are any such groups near you. If you have a car that is parked up most of the time, put up a note in your apartment building asking if any of your neighbours wants to use it (but clear it with your insurance company first, of course!). Organise a street party and spend a whole day with your neighbours. Make people aware of what a fundamental rethink of transportation could entail. Find a different way to get to work or your hobby for one day. Take your children to a Kidical Mass demo.

But most of all, go through life with open eyes and be honest with yourself: do you really have to take the car everywhere you go just for the sake of it? Log your car journeys for a few weeks, noting down the reason for travel and how long they took. Over half of all car journeys are under five kilometres – and I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but a lot of those could easily be made by bike.

Photocredit: J. Mairhofer.