In true Berlin style, the idea to ban private cars from the city ring started in a bar. It was 2019, and Nina Noblé, a 29-year-old urban planning graduate, was out having a drink with two friends. “I was super excited about the idea,” she says of the initial discussion. “At the same time it felt a bit crazy – it was really ambitious! I thought, ‘Is it really possible to do something like that?’”
To prove that it wasn’t just the schnapps talking, over the next six months they invited a larger group of 20 activists and friends to discuss the plan. “The founding group had very different backgrounds and brought a lot of varied expertise and ideas to the table. But what was common among them is that they’d all experienced life in the city and really wanted to change some- thing,” says Noblé.
They settled on pushing for a legal framework which would make it illegal to drive private vehicles within the city’s 88sqkm ring without a special permit. Permits would be granted to people who are mobility impaired, who work night shifts and cannot rely on public transport, or who have a business which requires the use of an automobile. People without permits would still be allowed up to 12 trips per year in rented vehicles, so moving house or major shopping trips would still be possible. Emergency services would also be exempt from any restrictions.
Parked car paradise
Since the Volksentscheid Berlin Autofrei campaign officially launched in October 2020 it has quickly gained traction, with the core group swelling to 100 members, and the wider group collecting signatures to over 600. “There’s so many people involved with different motivations,” says Thomas Howie, a 35-year-old communications manager who joined in February, “from parents who want their children to be able to go to school safely by themselves; to elderly people who want to live in a less stressful city; to people with asthma; to people who just want to be able to sleep with the window open at night.”
Another main issue, Noblé says, is the “insane and disproportionate space we give cars”. According to a report commissioned by the Senat, 58 percent of traffic space is devoted to cars, although they only account for 17 percent of all journeys within the ring. In comparison, only three percent of space is devoted to bicycles, despite the fact they make up 18 percent of journeys. Then there are parked cars, which alone take up approximately 17sqkm in the city – equivalent to five Tempelhofer Felder. “Imagine what we could do with all that space,” Noblé wonders.
Scrapping “das Auto im Kopf”
Although the idea might seem pretty radical compared to incremental initiatives like the mobility law, which aims to put bike lanes on every main street by 2030, when it comes to implementation, the car-free concept is actually far more realistic than many think. “Berlin Autofrei is a very smart approach,” says Dirk Schneidemesser, a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, “because, unlike the Mobility Act, you don’t have to find the funding, or wait for building companies to go and build the streets – you just have to restrict the use. The implementation could go quite quickly.”
And while those involved with Autofrei are hopeful that Berliners will back the plan, Schneidemesser is more cautious, recognising how embedded cars are within the German psyche. “I think that the knee-jerk reaction would be to oppose the ban. We’ve built a nation and cities that are so car- centric that it’s just become normal, helped of course by the billions the car industry spends on advertising every year.” So while driving out “das Auto im Kopf” won’t be easy, he notes that, “all the arguments are on their side. If they can get people to really consciously deal with this question, then I see good potential for success.”