At the beginning of the pandemic, Berlin districts created a handful of “Pop-Up Bike Lanes.” They were wonderful. But thanks to the far-right AfD, they’re gone.
As the lockdown began in Berlin, we were stuck in the eternal twilight of our apartments wondering if it would be safe to go to the Späti. But after just a few days, on March 25, the endless nightmare was interrupted by something that felt like a wonderful dream.
On Kottbusser Damm in Kreuzberg, a bike lane had popped up. The city called this a Pop-Up-Radweg. All of a sudden, you could ride down one of the most threatening streets in the city without a care, with a full 1.5 meters behind traffic barriers.
At the end of March, car traffic had largely disappeared, and bike riders were supposed to stay 1.5 meters apart. So the district of Kreuzberg blocked off one lane with yellow paint and temporary bollards. Whereas there were once two lanes that bikes needed to share with cars, alongside one for parking, now a whole lane was dedicated to cyclists.
Did this mean a huge inconvenience for drivers? It didn’t seem like it. At least in the summer, the right lane of Kottbusser Damm is full of cyclists (and double parkers) anyway. An initial study showed that car traffic did not slow down significantly — and fewer cars were on the streets.
Over the next month, similar bike lanes popped up at Hallesche Ufer in Kreuzberg or Kantstraße in Charlottenburg, as well as a handful of other busy streets. (All summer I’ve been attending bike demonstrations on Hermannstraße in Neukölln, demanding a #hermannstrasse4alle, but so far without success). These new lanes were originally scheduled to last until the end of May, then extended to the end of the year.
But one week ago, the Pop-Up-Radwege popped back out of existence. An AfD member in Berlin’s parliament sued, and Berlin’s administrative court agreed with him. The court declared that such bike lanes could only be created in a “situation of danger,” which they claim does not exist. I’m not sure how the judges want us to call it when four bike riders are killed in Berlin in a single week
In my last column, I pointed out that after 1945, Germany’s police were built up by Nazis. But the judicial system was no different: roughly three quarters of the judges serving in the Federal Republic had been taken over from the Nazi system. Should we be surprised that their successors on the bench have old-fashioned views about transportation.
The AfD guy called this decision a victory against “car haters.” I’m really not sure what they’re so upset about: we all know Berliners who would like to take a bike but feel too nervous on Berlin’s chaotic streets. If we put up some minimal infrastructure, more people would get on their bikes — and that would leave more space for cars, right?
Something in the society’s reactionary element associates bikes with societal collapse. Back in the Weimar Republic, leftist writers like Kurt Tucholsky and Erich Maria Remarque would make fun of the right blaming Germany’s defeat on “Jews, Freemasons, and cyclists.”
In 1934, the Nazis passed the Straßenverkehrsordnung to give primacy to cars in their Reich, and that law is still with us today. And it’s no wonder that the German state has never been interested in a serious reform: the auto industry is the vertebral column of German capitalism. So even though the Bundesregierung acknowledges the reality of climate change and Angela Merkel gets crowned the Klima-Kanzlerin, the country is staking its future on the export of diesel motors from now until there are no humans left to drive them.
But it’s not just the AfD in the CDU. The Green Party is equally tied to fossil fuels. Sure, they put bikes and birds on the election posters, and many people vote them for that reason. But what do they do when they get anywhere near power? They attempt to privatize the Berlin S-Bahn (which will force people into their cars). They sign off on lignite coal mining — the most carbon-intensive form of energy — until 2038. They want public money for the automobile industry.
At the moment, 43 percent of households in Berlin don’t own a car — in the inner city it is more than half. With those numbers, it is kind of amazing to think how much space the city provides to cars. It is hard to find a place to park a 70-kilogram human for less than 500 euros per month. But anyone who can afford a 2,000-kilogram car is supposed to park it for free.
If we want less bike riders to die in Berlin, we can’t rely on the government, and we definitely can’t rely on judges. We need to disrupt this car-congested city with protests if we want to make it a nicer place to live.