While Germany’s capital has made progress in building bike lanes and restricting traffic, national political shifts show that automobiles still reign supreme.
Berlin may have an international reputation as a green, bike-friendly city, but debates currently playing out in the German capital suggest that, for many residents, the car is still king.
In February, the conservative Christian Democrat Union party became the largest party in Berlin’s state assembly, following a campaign that championed the rights of motorists and targeted the capital’s “transport chaos.” This was a break from the outgoing left-leaning city government, which had been a longtime advocate of public transit and active travel.
Even before the February elections handed a win to the pro-car camp, Berlin had struggled to reduce car dependency. Last November, a court ruled that a car-free stretch of the major shopping street Friedrichsstrasse would be reopened to motorists, and in March a proposal to eliminate almost all parking spots in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Graefekiez this summer was revised to cut only 400.
Berlin may be Germany’s least car-dependent big city — its 2018 modal split of 26% for motor vehicles was notably lower than the next lowest, Hamburg, at 32% — but it’s also the capital of the nation that invented the gas-powered automobile and pioneered the modern superhighway. German car ownership rates are above average among European Union states, and its auto manufacturing sector is one of the largest in the world: Companies like VW, BMW and Mercedes-Benz directly employ over 750,000 people across Germany.
So firm is the automobile’s grip on Germany’s economic and cultural life, say advocates of more sustainable mobility, that it is hampering Berlin’s progress on reducing the space allotted to motor vehicles.
Turning Back the Clock
Before February’s elections, Berlin’s administration had been working to reduce transport-related emissions and car-usage in the central city, following in the footsteps of other European metropolises. But now Berlin is arguably speeding in the opposite direction amid political polarization between green-leaning city dwellers and more conservative car-dependent suburbanites. Recent polls showed that transportation ranked as the second-most-important electoral issue for voters, after housing — reflecting the importance of the issue to people for and against curbs on cars.
This points to a local quirk. Berlin has a lower car ownership rate than most major European capitals (and far below average in Germany); since 1998, car travel in the city has dropped 20%, while active transport has grown 25%, according to Deloitte. Still, a 2022 survey showed that 54% of local respondents favor extending the A100 highway, an unfinished postwar ring road partially encircling central Berlin that has long been a target of protesters. This places Berlin somewhat outside the European urban mainstream, in that many people who do not own or use cars regularly may nonetheless vote to make their use easier.
“Berlin likes to compare itself with major cities, likes Paris, London, Milan or Vienna” says Weert Canzler, a researcher at Berlin’s Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung social science institute, “but in all of these other cities the car is being systematically forced out, with higher parking fees, reduced lanes or anti-car campaigns.”
Berliners’ relative car-friendliness could relate partly to specific local factors. The city has wider streets than those of the average European metropolis, and rather than a single downtown, Berlin is made up of a network of spread-out, car-accessible neighborhoods. But the same dynamic is taking place nationally. The government has approved more than 300 motorway extensions, and abandoned sector-specific climate targets for transport — policies pushed by the centrist, increasingly pro-car Free Democratic Party (FDP), a minority member of the country’s governing coalition that controls the finance and transport ministries.
Cars, Prosperity and Freedom
Canzler sees the roots of Germany’s ongoing love of private car ownership in political decisions made during the postwar period known as the Wirtschaftwunder (“economic miracle”). “Everything was done politically and legally,” he said, to enable “the so-called American way of life — car, fridge, single-family house.”
As the automotive industry powered West Germany’s economic recovery and its network of speed-limit-free autobahns became ever more extensive, the car became a symbol of the country’s technical excellence and of individual choice and freedom — especially in relation to the Soviet-dominated German Democratic Republic. In East Germany, private cars were scarce, and residents endured long waits for poor-quality vehicles.
Post-unification, auto sales boomed; today, Germany’s proportion of cars to people remains far above the EU average, with notably more vehicles per 1,000 people than France, Spain, Sweden or the Netherlands.
The downsides of this embrace of automobility can be seen in air pollution and traffic congestion, but pro-car thinking is so entrenched in Germany that its levels of change have fallen behind international standards. The country has been leading a coalition attempting to water down the details of the EU’s scheduled 2035 ban on gas and diesel-fueled cars. National climate policies to reduce transportation-related emissions are currently more in the way of carrot than stick: They include subsidies to help people switch to electric vehicles, commitments to providing a comprehensive charging pointnetwork and a bid to boost domestic battery manufacturing.
Germany has also so far rejected proposals to curb speeds on the autobahns, though Germany’s Federal Environment Agency points out that introducing limits on highways could save 11 million tons of CO2 a year. While other countries are focusing on reducing the number of parking places in cities to discourage car use, the FDP party recently suggested introducing free 10-minute parking permits, to make it more attractive for drivers to enter central cities for day-to-day errands. Because of their efforts to push back on such car-friendly measures, Germany’s Green Party is often called the Verbotspartei (party of bans) by their political opponents..
As a result of political pressure, Germany has abandoned transportation sector targets within its overall national emission reduction strategy — a move welcomed by groups like the German Automobile Association (VDA). “We must shape the transformation in such a way that we do not lose the backing and support of the people,” said VDA president Hildegard Müller in a statement. “It is now crucial not to fall into populist debates about bans, but to promote the transformation towards climate neutrality in a sustainable and strategic manner.”
The resistance to shifting away from cars could also stem from an unexpected source — Germany’s widespread success in creating urban public transportation. Despite an increasingly dysfunctional national rail system, Germany’s city-dwellers at least still enjoy what is by international standards a notably convenient and affordable mass transit system, whose visibility may reduce the urgency of car-free advocacy.
In effect, many Germans seem to have concluded that, if the system isn’t broken, why fix it?