Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
While East Berlin's streetcars soldiered on under communist rule, West Berlin tore up the tracks. Now, the city is correcting its mistake.
This spring, Berlin agreed to correct a 50-year-old mistake.
Back in 1967, in a city divided between the powers of the Cold War, West Berlin canceled its last streetcar services, focusing its transit network on trains, subways, and buses. Meanwhile, East Berlin’s streetcars soldiered on, resulting in a tram system that today is largely nonexistent in the city’s former western sector.
But 28 years after reunification, the city has realized its error. Between now and 2026, the German capital is set to greatly expand its streetcar network, with the western region receiving most (if not all) of the new connections. Starting in 2021, streetcars will roll back out along the western streets, with officials hopeful that they will streamline the local transit, and maybe even reduce crime in some areas.
A quick visit to eastern Berlin makes clear why the western sector’s rejection of streetcars was a bad idea. European streetcars have never developed the bad reputation they often have in the U.S., and what survives of Berlin’s longstanding pre-division network is still exemplary. Usually fully segregated from motor traffic, it’s fast and clean, linking up well with the subway without duplicating its routes. Jump out of the subway at some key stations and you’ll often find a carefully timed streetcar waiting there to whisk passengers away.
Recent modest enlargements to the network have also proved popular. When the streetcar was extended to Berlin’s Central Station in 2015, the city expected 20,000 passengers per day. The current number of passengers is actually twice that.
The new lines will follow this model, extending from the existing network far into the west, to connect the Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Moabit and Charlottenburg districts to the city’s (formerly eastern) heart. None of these areas are poorly served for transit links, but the streetcars will certainly come in handy. Berlin’s buses can get snarled in traffic at peak hours, while the sheer variety of routes mean that people tend to stick to the two or three lines they know well, or even avoid buses entirely.
The subway isn’t necessarily ideal for short trips, even if Berlin’s system is often considerably closer to ground level than in London or Paris, resulting in trains that are quicker to reach from the street. Getting on a tram at street level is easier for people with limited mobility, while it could also take some weight off an overburdened subway in a fast-growing city.
Some drivers won’t be happy, however. Berlin’s streetcars don’t mingle with traffic, so they will take some space from existing car lanes along key routes. Still, the plan has some potential support from an unexpected source: users of a park that will likely get a new tram line through it.
The current plan is to thread rails across Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park, a long sliver of parkland that covers the former platforms and sidings of a long-demolished railway station. Using parkland as a transit site might sound controversial, but in recent years the park has become a notorious site for drug dealing. Bringing the streetcar through the park might make it more difficult for dealers to use the park as shelter, meaning that so far, locals seem to be giving the plan cautious approval.
The new trams should ultimately join up with other pending transit projects, including a new bike highway network. Berlin’s drivers may be looking at less road space in some areas, but the city’s transit network could end up proving so effective that few will mourn the loss.