Mobility should simply happen: the future of public transport at Hamburger Hochbahn

Interview with Dr. Britta Oehlrich, Head of Business Area Development, Hamburger Hochbahn AG

Dr. Britta Oehlrich is head of the Business Area Development staff unit at Hamburger Hochbahn AG and is thus in an interesting area of conflict. On the one hand, existence as a municipal company offers advantages such as the long-term award of part of the transport contract in Hamburg to Hamburger Hochbahn. On the other hand, the mobility market is undergoing radical change, and new players are breaking into the field of activity of classic public transport as a result of digitalisation: car sharing, bike sharing, e-scooters, shuttle and ride sharing services, etc. In an interview with the editorial team, Dr. Oehlrich describes how Hochbahn AG is positioned here.

Editor: What does the disruption in the mobility market mean for Hochbahn AG?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: In fact, we are still very lucky because we are not in one of the fast-moving markets. We have known for a long time that major changes are imminent and are now also in the midst of them, but on the other hand it also happens very slowly. As a municipal company we get the direct award for the transport of our customers in the bus and train area from the city. It is our mission to offer good mobility to the citizens of the city, even beyond our core business. That’s why we’re broadening our horizons at the moment and testing a lot of new things. In addition to the continuous, customer-oriented improvement of our bus and train services, we are also involved, for example, in autonomous driving. Since last week we also offer scooters to create a better offer for the first and last mile. We understand public transport to mean that we are not only bus and train, but together with other offers such as car sharing, city bikes and pedal scooters we create such an attractive offer that we bring the cars out of the city.

Editor: You want to offer “good mobility”. What requirements and expectations do customers have of public transport today?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: Customers today expect public transport to offer a mobility chain in which they do not have to change frequently and which is attractive in terms of frequency. Our vision is that the customer no longer has to worry about mobility. We imagine that the customer is guided by his device on the best way through the city, taking into account all possible means of transport and the current traffic situation and at the end of the month the best price for the service used, e.g. paid via the App. Mobility should simply happen.

Editor: On the one hand, this is an issue of physical infrastructure, i.e. roads, tracks, scooters and buses and trains. On the other hand, it is of course also a question of IT systems: How can the customer operate this and how does he access it?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: The offers of all 29 transport companies of the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund HVV are already available in the HVV app. In the next stage from November, the HVV switch app, all mobility offers in Hamburg will be included, including car sharing, bike sharing and scooters. With the HVV-Switch-App you can book and pay for all these offers.

Editor: Customer Centricity was also in charge of your project Platzampel – what’s it all about?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: The traffic light is a good example, which symbolizes the topic fail-fast. The idea behind the traffic light was to better distribute customers across the entire subway train in order to guarantee a seat for the customer and to reduce the time spent on boarding and changing trains. We thought it was customer-oriented to use a traffic light on the platform to show where the wagons are empty and where they are full, so that the customer can get on faster and find a seat. We piloted this in a hands-on project. However, the customer did not accept this at all. He has his hydrographs and doesn’t want to be steered. The traffic light was therefore a good example of something that we piloted quickly and with little money and which unfortunately did not work at all.
But we also have some nice examples, such as our construction site communication and self-service terminals for our bus drivers, which are very well received. So we have topics from the agile teams that work great and others that don’t. The nice thing is that we can try things out quickly with little money, then discard them again and set them up again if they don’t work out.

Editor: How do you incorporate such learnings into the next projects?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: We just dropped the traffic light. We don’t want to and can’t teach the customer that he should please go differently now.
Basically, it is an iterative process. We develop something in an agile team, go out, pilot it and see what happens. If it didn’t work, we go back again, work on something new, go out again and pilot it anew. With the construction site communication, we also did this and noticed that it was quite good. This is now being further elaborated and deepened, because the agile teams can’t work things out to the smallest detail. These are impulses and concepts that we give in, and then it is implemented in detail by agencies and market research. But the agile teams set the direction.

Editor: Which new forms of work are still important to you, how do they work and where might there be a problem?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: This is indeed a cultural development that we are carrying out here without naming it so explicitly. On the one hand, we want to implement agile work in the organization. It should not replace the previous waterfall model, but simply be a supplement in the possibilities of how one can work. On the other hand, it should also bring about openness in people’s minds. It is about the awareness that everything, including the construction of tunnels or bus stops, is always about the customer.
We have “trained” about 50 colleagues in this area, for example by working in an agile team in a six-week sprint. And we noticed a very positive response from the colleagues who were there: They are incredibly euphoric and motivated. Of course, there is also skepticism among colleagues and managers who are supposed to make their employees available for several weeks and who also fear that the new ideas will mess up the company.

Editor: What do you do with it?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: We have a so-called alliance of the willing. This is made up of various areas: Personnel, marketing, our area and also technology. These colleagues meet once a week. We can’t put it on anybody. We can only convince our colleagues with good solutions.

Editor: Can you tell us an example from practice?

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: For some time we had the topic of canteen food, because in certain areas of the company the perception was that they receive different food than the administration. Then the agile team stood down in the canteen, sold the food and talked to the customers. A colleague from the agile team, a driver, came from the catering trade. He had a completely different approach to his colleagues. He had empathy and knew both the gastronomy and the views of his colleagues. He simply united both worlds …

Editor: … and managed to break down the boundaries of the areas …

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: Exactly. And that was very well received. Afterwards the drivers had the feeling: They cook for us. We get the food that we all eat and that is freshly cooked for us.

Editor: If you show with such small examples that you have an open ear for the employees, that thinking along with them is also desired, this has an effect on the culture and thus also on the customer orientation.

Dr. Britta Oehlrich: Exactly. We don’t make this an end in itself or because we enjoy it. We have fun, that just happens, and that’s good. But it must make sense what we do it for and that’s exactly what we do it for: that in the end the customer benefits from it.

This interview as originally published on