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Cars and TransportationGermany

Critics decry Berlin's 'behind-the-times' transport policy

February 6, 2024

Berlin's bike lane initiative has stalled, roads have been de-pedestrianized, and higher SUV parking fees have been ruled out. Why is the German capital now more car-friendly while other cities are de-congesting?

Cars driving along Kaiserdamm towards the city center, the TV tower is visible in the background
Berlin's unique history impacts on its traffic situation until todayImage: picture alliance/dpa

Bike campaigners and environmentalists in the German capital are denouncing what they call the "devastating" local transport policies under the new centrist government. Latest figures by the Changing Cities campaign found that the Transport Ministry, led by the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)'s Manja Schreiner, had barely reached a third of its bicycle lane target in 2023 — only 23 kilometers (14.3 miles) of 60 kilometers.

Meanwhile, the day after Parisians voted to triple parking fees for heavy SUVs, the Berlin government confirmed that no such measure was being considered for the German capital, though other German cities, like Hannover, said they were considering such a step.

These measures come after the pedestrianization of a section of the central Friedrichstrasse boulevard became one of the most contentious issues in the last Berlin state election in February 2023: After a court order reversed the Green Party's pedestrianization of a short stretch of the road, the Berlin CDU quickly promised to keep it open to cars in future.

View of Friedrichstrasse
Plans for a pedestrian area on Friedrichstrasse turned out to be short-livedImage: Wikipedia

"The traffic transition in Berlin has been stalled," Changing Cities spokesperson Ragnhild Sorensen said in a statement last week. "Not a single new bus lane was built in 2023, streetcar projects have been put on hold, the expansion of cycle paths has been slowed down and now they are being redesigned to be more car-friendly. The SPD and CDU promised us a functioning city — what we got was dirty air and dangerous roads."

A car-friendlier city

Schreiner defended her ministry's record to local media, arguing that her Green Party predecessor had also failed to meet bike lane targets and that her ministry had deliberately prioritized crossings that were particularly dangerous for cyclists. "The debate must move away from quantity and also address the quality aspect," she told regional public broadcaster RBB.

The issue of traffic and balancing the interests of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians became heavily politicized duringlast year's election campaign in Berlin, after which the new CDU Mayor Kai Wegner told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, "The way … the Greens left the streets simply didn't suit a metropolis like Berlin."

Michaela Christ, the mobility specialist at the Berlin-based German Institute of Urban Affairs (DIFU), thinks that the debate has become all too ideology-driven. "We have completely different political circumstances here to Paris," she told DW. "The election in Berlin was won not least with the promise of reversing all the measures that go toward progressive mobility."

"We've got caught in this fight between: 'Yes to cars,' or 'No to cars,' and that's not the aim of mobility policy," she said. "The biggest challenge for European cities is not to fall into a culture war over whether a car can drive down here or a bus, but to think together in terms of the goal."

Yellow double decker bus leaving Berlin's Bahnhof Zoo station
Not a single new bus lane was built in Berlin in 2023Image: Schoening/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

After all, Christ pointed out, most city-dwellers use a mix of transport modes every day. "Only very few Berliners only use cars, or only public transport, or only the bike," she said. "And politicians don't have to say we want to privilege this or that mode of transport, instead, we have a common interest: The aim to is get where we want to go as quickly, comfortably, and safely as possible."

A unique history

The contrast between Berlin and Paris, which is introducing more measures to discourage drivers in the city center, couldn't be starker. That's partly down the different histories of the two cities, according to Giulio Mattioli, urban development researcher at the Technical University in Dortmund.

"A lot of European cities are very congested, and there is a perceived struggle with too many cars, and the belief that something has to be done about it, and it seems that Berlin is behind the curve in many ways," Mattioli told DW. "Other cities have pedestrianized city streets without that much controversy."

There are reasons for this: Berlin has relatively few cars per inhabitant, partly because its unique history means it hasn't developed like other cities. The Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989 restricted how much the city could grow, which means there are now fewer car-dependent suburbs.

"Cities have to get to that stage when it's really, really apparent to everyone, including motorists, that there is such a thing as too many cars on the streets, and Berlin hasn't quite reached that," said Mattioli.

The future of urban mobility could be a two-wheeled solution

There are also ways in which Berlin is still catching up with other European capitals like Paris and London — Berlin is one of the only major cities in the developed world to build a new airport in recent years and is also still extending its A100 city highway around the city. "There's still this idea that having cars and having new motorways is something modern — it's something that belongs to a large city, whereas, in places like Paris and London, they say: 'No, we're leading the way in restricting cars'," said Mattioli.

Not only that, certain legal peculiarities in Germany have made it harder for cities to make their roads more bike and pedestrian-friendly. For instance, Germany is one of the few countries that doesn't allow cities to unilaterally change their default speed limits: Though there are campaigns in Berlin and other German cities to lower the speed limit from 50 km/h to 30 km/h, this can't be done without a green light from the federal government.

Similarly, Germany has unusually strict regulations over how roads are designated, either as for pedestrians, bikes, or cars. This has made it difficult for local governments to convert roads or build new bike lanes, as successive Berlin governments are finding — whether they have the political will or not.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight