In 2018, two streets in Neukölln — Silbersteinstraße and Karl-Marx-Straße — were named by Germany’s Environmental Agency as the dirtiest streets in Berlin. That makes them among the dirtiest streets in Germany.
Cars kill people in collisions. But they actually kill more people via fine particulates. The dust created by motors and tires kills about 400,000 people per year worldwide. That includes tens of thousands of people in Germany, and, statistically speaking, at least a few hundred Neuköllners.
You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that. Karl-Marx-Straße is often just a big traffic jam in both directions, with people going to or from the freeway. As you see the huge metal boxes emitting poisons, you can feel what is happening in your lungs.
But help might be on the way!
Neukölln’s district government has announced it will create several “Kiezblocks.” This means streets will be cut off to reduce traffic through residential neighbourhoods. As the district councillor for transportation told the taz: “I expect we’ll get that implemented in the spring of 2023.” Since this is Berlin, let’s assume 2024 — that’s still pretty good!
The concept is quite simple, and residents have been fighting for this for years. It would actually just require a handful of Poller (bollards) to prevent people cutting across from Karl-Marx-Straße to Sonnenallee. Last year, we got a single Poller between Richardplatz and Karl-Marx-Platz — and overnight, a permanent traffic jam was changed into a place where kids can enjoy their ice cream. Something similar happened at Böhmischer Platz, where ten meters of blocked road allowed a community space to thrive.
Richardkiez, where I live, is a pristine quarter centered around the 18th century Bohemanian village of Rixdorf. Rather: it would be pristine, if it wasn’t one big thoroughfare for cars! A local initiative counted 16,000 cars going through the tinyHertzbergstraße every day. While the speed limit is 20 km/h, it’s not unusual for cars to go 50 km/h — they have places to be, after all!
But the authorities are dragging their feet. This kind of human-centered traffic planning is common in wealthier neighborhoods, but Nekölln is special.
The district has been working on that bike lane for over two-and-a-half years now! They are about halfway done.
When you picture Neukölln, you are almost certainly thinking of Nord-Neukölln, the area inside the Ring. But the district is vast, and its southern expanses reach all the way to Brandenburg. The south is full of single-family homes, Kleinbürger:innen, and Nazis.
Since so many Northern Neuköllners are not allowed to vote — a third of us are counted as Ausländer — the district is governed by the Southerners. This is why a neighborhood so famous for immigrant life has long been governed by astoundingly racist social democrats (even by SPD standards!). Local government, while formally democratic, can feel more like an occupation regime. Transportation policy in Berlin’s most densely populated neighborhood is determined by people with attached garages.
When I got a campaign newspaper of the AfD Neukölln, I was struck that one of their top priorities was to raise the speed limit on Sonnenallee. They want to get past us as quickly as possible — and if they run over a couple of Brown kids in the process, they don’t seem to mind.
Neukölln’s bureaucracy is clearly staffed by angry car drivers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the district of Kreuzberg needed a single night to create a protected bike lane on Kottbusser Damm. If you continue on that street to the south, it becomes Hermannstraße in Neukölln. Activists demonstrated a dozen times to get a bike lane there as well.
The district has been working on that bike lane for over two-and-a-half years now! They are about halfway done. Neukölln’s social democrats remind me of my 12-year-old self when told to clean up my room: they are working with theatrical lethargy so their defiance is registered. I’m not very good with my hands, but I’m pretty sure I could have finished that bike lane all by myself in, what, a year?
Similarly, the Kiezblock plan was passed by the assembly a year ago. Apparently, one of the remaining problems is how to put bollards across Richardplatz. The historical conservation authority is saying that red-and-white barriers would destroy the historical ambiente. So let me get this straight: tens of thousands of cars every day do not disturb the village flair — but a traffic barrier would?
Neukölln traffic policy is an example of the environmental racism of inter-city freeways. Wealthy people can breathe clean air out in the suburbs — but they still want to get into the city quickly, and that means speeding their poison-mobiles past the homes of poor people. Car pollution is deadly, but it tends to kill older people. From a capitalist perspective, killing people who can no longer generate profits isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Around the world, environmental justice activism has been taking aim at some of the deadliest urban freeways, and a couple are being dismantled. Will Neukölln be next? I predict we will need a lot more protests before local leaders put up even a couple of new traffic poles.