This issue we present an interview with Dr. Martin Schiefelbusch who has participated in numerous T2M events. Recently he has gained new experience in a field that can remain unfamiliar to those in academia, namely consultancy with executive authorities. T2M asked Dr. Schiefelbusch about the importance of scientific backgrounds and coherency of study and practice within transport research.
Can you recall when your interest in transport first arose? It probably happened long before your time in high school – so what was it like?
Yes, indeed, it goes back quite a long way. Several things came together: My parents told me I had an interest in cars already when I was very small, as probably (at least) many boys do. On top of that came an interest in town planning, which I kind of inherited from my parents – my mom was an architect, and my grandfather a civil engineer. I started building little towns in which I drove around my model cars even before I went to school. Step by step this activity became more and more abstract, the cities became bigger, then I started drawing them on paper, then I made public transport networks and timetables for these cities. In the real world, I started making multiple experiences as a transport user – I still remember how my mum taught me how to use the tram on my own, in the summer of 1977. It was a nice experience – I had travelled by tram before with my mother for going to town and sports etc, so I knew basically how it worked. She had a car, but had made a driving license only when I was born, and she didn’t like driving, so we used it quite regularly, but not everyday. However, my mum also worked, and so she thought it would be useful if I could become more independent and learn using the tram by myself. So in that summer afternoon, she brought me to the tram stop “Kirchweg” in Kassel from which there were two routes going directly to our home. She parked her car nearby, and when the tram came, she told the driver: “Please make sure that my son gets off at Wigandstraße”. I stayed on the tram, standing behind the driver, and she went there by car. When I arrived, she was already waiting for me. Nothing special happened, but I still remember it as my first public transport trip on my own. I don’t remember the route number or vehicle number of course, but it must have been a six-axle bi-directional vehicle, which was the main type in use at the time. These trams were sold to Gorzow in Poland in the early 1990s, and probably some are still running there. So it is probably no surprise that I always wanted to work in this (transportation – A.V.) area. Nevertheless, when I started studying transport planning, I found out that a purely technical or economic perspective was not to my taste. Fortunately, I found an alternative, and again my focus of interest moved towards the conceptual, political and social dimension. Perhaps my father’s character came in here, he was a more philosophical character. But I still like to look at things also from the practical perspective and am happy when something concrete comes out of my work.
Judging by your resume and publication titles, the ‘User’ seems to be key character in your research. How would you position the ‘User’ among the other favoured subjects of mobility studies – e.g. tourist, nomad and driver?
I’m not sure how much I can comment on “mobility studies” in general, but considering transport planning, the concept of “user” has certainly been quite simplistic for a long time – somebody who decides on mode, route, travel time etc. based on a pure cost-benefit analysis and who has no other expectation than to get quickly from A to B. This type of planning doesn’t look at “the user”, only at users as mass phenomena that can be described mathematically. Fortunately this is changing. I hope to contribute to this in two ways: first by casting light on the “user” as a human being with emotions, other interests and also limitations, second as an “actor” who can express its view and participate actively in the shaping and production of mobility – rather than being just somebody for which the experts do the planning. For the latter, I have certainly also been influenced by my involvement in citizens’ initiatives and pressure groups – this inspired me to pursue the “user as a stakeholder” topic as a research field, which indeed led to quite a lot of publications.
Can you mention the most exciting ideas related to the history of transport infrastructure that you have encountered during the last five years?
It is difficult and perhaps unfair to mention specific works here, but my research path described above was certainly stimulated by the continuous exposure to “other” academic fields like systems analysis, social science mobility studies and history. Regarding the latter, I am always impressed by the broad range of topics people discover and deal with on the T2M conference. As a learning-by-doing historian, it took me a bit to get into this way of thinking. What I find interesting is when one can discover continuities between past and present, or when these planning processes which seem so technical and rational at first become a subjective, personal or political edge through a closer look.
Please tell us a bit about your current job outside the academy. Have you profited from your previous academic experiences or have these in fact caused complications for you?
At the time of writing, I have been in this position for about six weeks only, so it is a bit early to tell how much I can benefit from my previous work. I am working at the transport authority for the federal state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany. This position has just been created following political interest to do more to support public transport for the countryside. The tasks are a mixture of supporting community transport initiatives, being a mediator and coordinator between them and the political/administrative stakeholders on state level, coordinating and helping to maintain standards for such transport schemes and developing ideas for other innovations.
I think I got this job because I could demonstrate that I have both experience in thinking creatively and cross-disciplinary as an academic and at the same time, due to the kinds of projects I have done over the last years, knowledge of the practical side of things. So I would say my research background is valuable rather than making things complicated, but I cannot tell at the moment how this will manifest itself.
Do you imagine doing projects in academic formats again in the future or intensive collaborations with scientists to fulfil your practical goals?
Yes, I can imagine either of these possibilities, but there are no precise ideas yet.