Home SoziologieBerlin’s Efforts to Reduce Driving Stalled by German Car Culture
Berlin’s Efforts to Reduce Driving Stalled by German Car Culture

Berlin’s Efforts to Reduce Driving Stalled by German Car Culture

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.”

“The way I would look at Germany is it has more of everything” says Giulio Mattioli, a transportation researcher at the Technical University of Dortmund. “It has more car infrastructure like motorways, but also more public transport in cities such as trams. All modes are provided for relatively generously and that creates a sort of complacency that everything is good as it is.” This allows a degree of inertia, Mattioli says: “That’s where some of this opposition comes from — ‘It’s fine already; we don’t need to change.’”