Berlin car drivers can’t believe their luck. After years of trundling behind entitled cyclists, they’re being restored as the apex predator of the urban jungle. The new CDU government used drivers’ rights as a wedge to win big outside the Ring at the last election, and now they’re rewarding their motorist voters.
Mayor Kai Wegner declared that he opposes bicycle lanes that slow down cars. Transport Senator Manja Schreiner said parking spaces should not be sacrificed for bikes. In an ear-piercing double dog whistle, Schreiner wrote: “People have other problems than gender-correct speech and bicycles’ right of way.”
Among their first triumphant acts in May was to turn the Friedrichstraße pedestrian zone into a road again, forcing walkers back onto the narrow pavement. Then in early June, Schreiner halted all bicycle lane construction and ordered a review of long-planned projects to evaluate just how car-friendly the lanes would be.
The delay risks losing allocated federal funding. Infrastructure contracts would have to be paid regardless, burning public money in a quest to burn more fossil fuel. One planning expert said the CDU’s car-centric policies made “no sense from a traffic science perspective”. Not to mention climate science, air quality or road safety.
Already there are 1.23 million registered cars in Berlin, enough to occupy four Tempelhofer Felds.
“People have to park their cars somewhere. The government can’t simply come and say, ‘there are no more parking spots’,” Schreiner said, reframing car storage as some kind of human right. By such logic, equestrians should be free to hitch their horses in public flowerbeds. In more crowded metropolises, drivers must secure a private garage before they even think of buying a car.
Already there are 1.23 million registered cars in Berlin, enough to occupy four Tempelhofer Felds. That number has increased by about 100,000 in the past decade, and each year some 10,000 more vehicles arrive in Berlin.
Motorists Steering Politics
Motorists are now in the driver’s seat in Berlin, despite people often preferring other forms of transit. The last official government survey, taken in 2018, found 23% of daily journeys were made in private vehicles, 27% in public transport, 31% by foot and 18% by bicycle. But more people started cycling during the pandemic, and the bicycle lobby group ADFC say there are 17% more cyclists on the roads now than in 2018.
Berlin has the worst air quality in Germany and is ranked 219 of 320 European cities by the EU’s air monitoring agency.
That’s when the previous green-left government introduced the landmark Mobility Law, which for the first time ditched car-centric planning and prioritised other modes of transport. It also brought in a bicycle plan, based on a successful 2015 referendum, which set the goal of building wide bike lanes on every major road. Citizens can sue the government to follow the law, as one resident did to widen the bike lane on Oberbaumbrücke. But that government was ousted before it could finish its mission of increasing bicycle modal share to 23% and reducing cars to 18% by 2030.
Much remains to be done. Berlin has the worst air quality in Germany and is ranked 219 of 320 European cities by the EU’s air monitoring agency. Cycling and pedestrian deaths are still too common, with 10 of each in Berlin in 2022. Berlin is far behind other cities for rideability – currently it’s 15th on the Copenhagen Index. Berlin cyclists’ confidence on the road is still not matched by infrastructure.
Driving is Violence
At the same time, drivers have become increasingly aggressive towards anyone inhibiting their velocity. Cyclists at the monthly Critical Mass rides say more motorists are threatening their cordon-holders at intersections and dangerously attempting to plough through the stream of riders. Witness also the violence against Letzte Generation road blockers. Videos show drivers accelerating toward lines of sitting protesters, dragging them away by their hair, and attempting to set fire to their glued hands.
These assaults – some might even be called attempted murders – are being encouraged by hateful newspaper headlines and right-wing politicians. Even SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz called hand-gluers “completely idiotic”. The rise of car politics and driver violence show that people are ready to fight to preserve their privilege, no matter the urgency of devastating climate change.
The CDU Backs Down, a Little
The CDU’s bike-bashing has prompted a furious ringing of bells. This summer, riders have mounted huge protest rides during rush hour several times a week, many organised by the group Respect Cyclists. Following the outcry, the CDU relented a little. After reviewing 19 planned paths, Schreiner allowed 16 to go ahead. But she cancelled three bike lanes in Neukölln, Pankow and Reinickendorf.
The conservatives insist they actually want to build more cycle lanes than the last government. They may be playing a double game, making statements to please their base, then implementing only some of their threats. But the next battles are already looming.
The CDU wants to rewrite the Mobility Law to suit its agenda. Funding may be cut for Spielstraßen – temporarily car-free streets where children can play. And they’re intent on extending the A100 motorway across the Spree, pouring tens of thousands of cars into Friedrichshain. The new Berlin government’s regression to car-centric planning feels like a handbrake turn for those who thought urban progress was a one-way street.