Berlin’s plan for a car-free city prompts bitter war of words

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Many visitors to Graefekiez, a lively cobbled-road neighbourhood just south of Berlin’s centre, come in search of something new: a tattoo from an authentic Japanese parlour, a rare print from an off-grid gallery, a dive-bar encounter over a 4am beer.

This summer, they can brace themselves for another novelty: for at least three months, local authorities are planning to scrap almost all of the neighbourhood’s parking spaces as part of a social experiment designed to chart the waters of the German capital’s car-free future.

Exactly how long the trial will last, how many of the neighbourhood’s roads it will include, and whether the vacant parking spaces will be filled with ping-pong tables, plant pots or dining tables instead, the council will not reveal until after Sunday’s Berlin state elections, a repeat of the September 2021 vote that was marred by delays and logistical errors.

The decision to hold back information may well be politically motivated: the business of getting from A to B has become the subject of a bitter culture war between car lovers and car haters in the runup to the vote. And Berlin’s experimental approach to ushering out the age of the automobile isn’t only alienating petrolheads.

The metropolis on the river Spree used to be feted for its public transport links, its densely woven web of underground and overground trains, trams, buses and ferries guaranteeing that getting from one corner of the city to the next usually took less than an hour. Wide roads make cycling popular and relatively safe.

“Berlin has lots of space and barely any commuters – a lot of people live close to where they work,” said Prof Andreas Knie, a mobility researcher at the WZB Social Science Center that will supervise the Graefekiez project. “In theory, it has all the right conditions in place to become a model ‘city of short distances’,” he added, citing the concept of compact living spaces that urban planners have championed for more than a decade.

Berlin car-free section of Friedrichstrasse
Only cyclists can ride bicycles in the Berlin car-free section of Friedrichstrasse – a significant culture and shopping hotspot. Photograph: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Yet recently Berlin has struggled to convert its advantages into real change. In inner London and Paris, car ownership is in decline. Berlin may still have the lowest car ownership rate in Germany, with 337 vehicles registered per 1,000 inhabitants in 2022, but the number of automobiles on its roads has been rising steadily.

“Five years ago, we were top of the pops,” said Knie. “Now London and Paris have overtaken us.”

The means that German cities have at their disposal to shape movement on their roads is limited by federal laws that prioritise free flow of vehicles. Municipalities can’t impose 30 km/h zones on main roads unless they can prove a high risk of accidents. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), in charge of the ministry at federal level, has shown no signs of willingness to rewrite the all-powerful road traffic act.

While their hands remain tied, Green councillors in Berlin have resorted to guerrilla tactics aimed at nudging cars out of the city centre. During the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020, several Berlin districts redrew road markings to create “pop-up” cycle lanes, supposedly to help cyclists physically distance on their commutes to work. Many of the new lanes have become popular permanent fixtures.

At the start of the year, the senate went further: as of 2023, two-wheeled vehicles – including bikes, motorbikes and electric scooters – are allowed free use of parking spaces previously reserved exclusively for cars across the city.

But this experimental approach has also left parts of Berlin in a what locals perceive as a state of permanent flux. A section of the Bergmannstrasse thoroughfare in Kreuzberg has undergone two attempts at a cycle-friendly redesign in the last four years, first with psychedelic-looking polka-dot road markings and then with a two-way cycle lane pushing cars on to a one-way single lane.

Further north, cars were banished from a 500-metre stretch of the Friedrichstrasse boulevard for two years until a local wine dealer last November won a court case to let automobiles back in. At the end of January, Berlin’s Green party senator for mobility and climate protection, Bettina Jarasch, shut cars out again, against the will of the incumbent city mayor Franziska Giffey, of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.

The hypothesis behind the latest experiment in Graefekiez is that most residents who leave their Autos on the side of its tree-lined streets don’t actually need them to get around town. A summer of seeing spaces previously hogged by boxes of steel used by playing children and al-fresco diners, the thinking goes, may encourage them to ditch them for good.

“The idea we are pursuing is whether public spaces can be experienced and used in more efficient ways than keeping them reserved for parked cars,” said Annika Gerold, Kreuzberg’s Green district councillor in charge of transport affairs.

But with the details of the car-free experiment kept under wraps, scepticism in the neighbourhood is tangible. Florian Eicker, who runs a small lunchtime eatery serving Hawaiian poké bowls on Graefestrasse, says he would welcome additional space for tables outside his restaurant, and could imagine switching to a car-sharing scheme to buy and deliver his ingredients.

But a lack of information about another temporary state that could be rolled back again by the autumn has left him frustrated: “What’s the point if we merely push the problems three months into the future?” The attitude among his neighbours and guests was broadly negative, Eicker said. “I’d say it’s 30% in favour to 70% against. And those people aren’t especially wedded to car ownership on principle.”

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a conservative party whose core voters could not be further from the bohemian crowd on the Graefekiez’s streets, has been making hay of local frustration, collecting 1,450 signatures in favour of scrapping the trial in the neighbourhood of approximately 18,000.

Instead of banishing parking spaces altogether, local CDU candidate Timur Husein advocates charging car owners to use them like they do in other cities – because for now, parking in the Graefekiez remains mostly free. If polls are anything to go by, his party’s pitch is proving surprisingly resonant in a city usually famed for its countercultural ways.

The most recent surveys show the Christian Democrats in the lead on 26% of the vote, and within a realistic chance of unseating the incumbent left-green senate as long as it can sway one of the coalition parties to switch sides.

“Adding a few bollards here and there is absolutely fine,” Husein said. “But an entire neighbourhood without cars – that’s even too much for Green voters.”

This article was amended on 13 February 2023 to correct the spelling of Graefekiez.

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( With inputs from : )

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