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.
The German capital will experiment with banning cars on two popular retail streets—but it’s being notably more cautious than its European counterparts.
Berlin is finally getting a fuller taste of the car-free trend that’s taking hold in other European cities.
This summer, the German capital has announced plans to pedestrianize some vital central streets starting in October. One experiment will ban cars from the main section of Friedrichstrasse, a long, store-filled thoroughfare that, before World War II, was considered the city’s main shopping street. Another will test daily closures on Tauentzienstrasse, another key retail street, with a view toward going permanently car-free in 2020.
These plans are notably muted compared to, say, the blanket car ban in central Madrid, or London’s new Ultra Low Emissions Zone. But they are nonetheless ground-breaking for Berlin, and could do much to slash the presence of cars in some of its busiest areas.
Since reunification, Friedrichstrasse has almost regained its pre-war reputation as a primary shopping destination, and it’s worth watching to see if that actually happens when its department stores and boutiques are accessible only by foot, bike and public transit. Tauentzienstrasse, meanwhile, is one of western Berlin’s main competitors to Friedrichstrasse—a broad boulevard that’s home to continental Europe’s largest department store.
At Tauentzienstrasse, the street is wide enough for a more radical makeover. If it’s fully closed for good, it could accommodate cafés and what Germans call “lying meadows”—lawns intended for lounging and sunbathing—in its median. Such changes probably make as much sense commercially as they do environmentally. While some stores may worry that restricted vehicle access could deter shoppers, in the age of online shopping, it pays to make the location of your store pleasant enough to lure people who simply want to hang out.
There are budding efforts to go further in Berlin, as well. There’s talk among the city’s Greens—still too hazy to count as proposals—of banning cars in inner Berlin by 2030, after an interim congestion charge. And this Saturday, a group of activists who favor a city-wide car ban are planning a demonstration intended to temporarily shut down Western Berlin’s Sonnenallee, a long avenue bisecting the fast-gentrifying working-class district of Neukölln. Lined with affordable cafés and restaurants, Sonnenallee also has traffic that can sometimes be deafeningly loud, making what might otherwise be a promenade for strolling into something that sounds and smells like a race track. Piloted by an organization called Autofrei Berlin (“Car-free Berlin”), the demonstration hopes to amp up pressure to free the space from private cars.
Here’s the thing, though. Autofrei Berlin is tiny. It has barely 5,000 Facebook followers and is expecting only a few hundred people to its demonstration. And while Berlin has one of the highest rates of bike commuting among European capitals (albeit far behind Amsterdam and Copenhagen), previous plans reported by CityLab to remove its cars on Unter den Linden, its monumental but largely shop-free central avenue, have so far not come to full fruition. Compared to national plans from the Greens to make domestic flights obsolete, it all seems a little tentative. So what, if anything, is holding the city back?
Part of it could be the city’s good luck, because it has space. It is, by and large, not a city of ancient, narrow twisting streets. Berlin is a generally roomy, sprawling place planned quite logically around wide avenues and broad squares, where even smaller streets tend to have broad roadways and sidewalks. As such, the conflict between pedestrians and motorists isn’t quite as raw as in Paris, where streets are often narrow, or London, where the city plan is too erratic and inconsistent to have ever made cars convenient.
The mere sidewalk of a major Berlin thoroughfare is often wider than an entire street in Amsterdam. To cap all this, Berlin has no unified central core, but a constellation of medium-intensity mini-hubs scattered across a wide area, making it quite different from more heavily pedestrianized German cities like Munich. That makes the need to reduce cars seem less palpable. The grand scale of both German imperial and communist planning in East Berlin’s central Alexanderplatz, for example, means there’s more than enough space for people to wander without ever having to cross a road, even as cars trundle by on multiple adjacent lanes.
Something more is afoot, though. Germany has a car culture that rivals the U.S. in its sheer intensity. As writer Thomas Vašek notes in commentary magazine Die Zeit, Germans have an “imperial and romantic relationship with driving” and the German car is “like football. Nothing can affect its popularity—no crisis, no scandal, no shit.”
This love is partly encouraged by the national government’s awareness of the importance of the country’s car industry. Cars still remain the ultimate status symbol—one reason why anarchists in Berlin are taking once more to setting the fancier ones on fire. As a result of this and the sprawling layout of the city, wealthier Berliners often make the choice to drive (as an unexpected consequence, the crowd on Berlin’s public transit can give the impression that the city is in fact poorer than it is).
The end result of this affection for cars is nonetheless clear. Even though some other German cities have dirtier air, numerous parts of Berlin exceed safe levels for NO2, contributing to a national problem in which air pollution is blamed for three times more deaths than AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria combined.
The relative manageability of Berlin’s pollution problem compared to other European cities may well have slowed its resistance to car dominance. Its host of upcoming pedestrian plans suggests that it is starting to take the issue altogether more seriously.