In 2019, the very heart of Berlin will go car-free. Following a decision Saturday, Berlin’s Unter den Linden avenue will soon be off limits to all private cars, allowing only buses, taxis, and bikes to ride along its mile’s length.
It’s hard to overstate the symbolic significance of the move. Unter den Linden is the most famous street in Germany, a kind of Teutonic Champs Elysées that contains museums, libraries, monuments, a university, and two opera houses. The East Berlin avenue, whose name means “under/among the linden trees”, used to function as an east-west highway through the city’s heart and was the focus for military parades from the era of Napoleon to that of Gorbachev. Banishing cars from such a central space won’t just remove private motorists from the city’s tourist heart, it suggests a change of heart that could steadily see such traffic increasingly sidelined.
That such a change is possible is partly thanks to another recent Berlin story covered here on CityLab. The city is currently expanding the U55 subway line, which is bringing back trains from the 1950s, so that it joins up with an existing line that currently begins at Alexanderplatz. This line will run underneath Unter den Linden, and current construction work on the project has forced partial lane closures up and down the avenue. The disruption has already seen car traffic on the avenue drop significantly. Before construction began, 30,000 cars traveled the avenue each day. Now, that number is just 8,000. That decrease is an important precursor to the ban, showing motorists that they don’t need to keep Unter den Linden for themselves.
As these cars are cleared out, more space will be freed up for greenery and cycle tracks, with the avenue’s famous lines of trees being extended out into the roadway. For anyone who likes cleaner air and walking along a handsome street without fear of being run over, the plan to phase out cars must surely be good news.
For some, however, it doesn’t go far enough. A writer for the Berliner Zeitung has damned the plan as half-hearted, saying that the city is losing a roadway without actually gaining a new pedestrian zone. Tourist buses and taxis will still prowl the street, while surrounding alternative roads could become even more crowded. This argument seems a little defeatist, but there is a good point lurking in there. If it is going to become a true pleasure, Unter den Linden will need more than a car ban.
The street is unquestionably grand, historic, and at least in certain sections quite beautiful — but its overall impression is a little drab. Its buildings can come across as heftily official; the sidewalks are undersupplied with humanizing café terraces and oversupplied with tourists. That’s not to say tourists are a bad thing, but they’re unequally balanced by locals, who tend to promenade elsewhere.
The reason for this lack of vibrancy is partly historical. Before the devastation of World War II and the city’s subsequent partition, Berlin went in for a sort of unofficial zoning. Western Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm was where high society went for entertainment, while they shopped on nearby Friedrichstrasse. Unter den Linden, meanwhile, was a sort of shop window for official culture, a visual representation of the virtues of the Prussian, then German states that were dignified but somewhat dull. This status has somehow persisted — people travelling in search of Berlin’s supposed vibrancy and excitement would struggle to find much of it here. Clearing out cars and opening the avenue up into a park-like space could sow the seeds of a more human, infectiously likeable city core.
As it is, things are already destined to change. In 2019 (the same year as the private car ban) one end of Unter den Linden will see the opening of the newly rebuilt Berlin city palace. A vast baroque former royal residence damaged in World War II, then demolished by the East German government, the city palace is being resurrected as an elaborate shell for a coolly modern cultural complex called the Humboldt Forum. While the merits of the reconstruction have not convinced everyone (including myself), it will unquestionably flood the area with more visitors. This could be the tipping point that transforms the avenue into a place of genuine magnetism, flushing the artery clean with an injection of new pedestrians who will hopefully find more places to linger and rest under the trees. If this is going to happen, getting cars off the street is a vital start.