• Politics
  • Red Flag: Why we should ban cars altogether


Red Flag: Why we should ban cars altogether

The city could be beautiful. We just need to get rid of the dirtiest and deadliest means of transportation ever invented.

Protesters on Schönhauser Allee demand fewer cars and more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly streets. Photo: IMAGO / Seeliger

Are you paying for a BMW? I didn’t think I was. I mean, I’ve never sat in such a gas guzzler. I don’t even know how to drive. But I am still paying for one — and if you live in Germany, you are too.

All of us are paying subsidies for cars. The Dienstwagenprivileg, tax rebates for company cars, costs the German state about €3 billion every year. Every time a rich asshole vrooms by in a two-ton limousine, chances are that you are footing part of the bill.

Greenpeace has calculated that Germany spends a total of €46 billion every year subsidising activities that ruin the climate.

But that’s not the only handout for automobiles. It’s costing more than €600 million to extend the A100 freeway a few kilometers into Treptow. The next segment of that Autobahn will likely cost more than €1 billion for a few more kilometers into Friedrichshain.

Greenpeace has calculated that, each year, the German state spends a total of €46 billion subsidising activities that ruin the climate.

That brings us to the €9 Ticket. Like 30 million other people in Germany, I am loving it. It’s not just cheap — it’s a relief to jump on the S-Bahn and not have to worry about a ticket. But it’s going to run out in just one month, and politicians from across the spectrum are saying we simply can’t afford to continue it.

According to Greenpeace, it would cost just €4 billion to provide everyone with a “climate ticket” for just €365 per year, or €1 per day. So that could be financed entirely by stopping handouts for Audis, Mercedes, and BMW. But I won’t hold my breath.

In this country, poor people have to subsidise transport for rich people. But rich people cannot possibly be asked to help pay for transport for everyone. Taxes pay for BMWs but not for busses. If you were a Captain Planet supervillain trying to destroy the earth for fun, you would have trouble coming up with a more destructive policy than the German governments.

Cars are a ridiculously inefficient way of moving people through the city — 2,000 kilograms of machine for a single person.

Cars are killing all of us. According the historian Klaus Gietinger, 3,700 die in traffic accidents every single day: “Imagine if every day 2.5 Titanics would sink, 7 packed jumbo jets would crash, or 37 times the worst train accident in German history would happen.” Gietinger calculates that cars have killed 70 million people since they were invented. It’s like they’re at war against people. In early June, five people were killed in a train crash in Bavaria. That topped the national news for three days. But cars kill twice as many people in Germany every day — when is the last time you saw that on the Tagesschau?

People say that Berlin is too loud and dirty. But what, exactly, is causing that? Cars ruin urban life. Imagine how luxuriously wide Berlin’s streets used to be before both sides were packed with giant metal boxes — boxes that stand unused for 23.5 hours per day.

The policy of car supremacy dates back to a time when only aristocrats with chauffeurs could afford any kind of motor vehicle. Of course they got the right of way. Yet as André Gorz wrote back in 1973: “the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.” Cars were nonetheless offered to the masses. They are a ridiculously inefficient way of moving people through the city — 2,000 kilograms of machine for a single person — but they have still taken over most of the urban landscape. 

Cars don’t just kill us with accidents. Fine particle pollution leads to all kinds of illness. Carbon emissions are leading to rapid changes in climate. The German car lobby, also known as the Bundesregierung, promises us that all will be solved with E-Autos. But electric cars are a scam. They take up just as much room and are just as loud as gas guzzlers — the only “advantage” is that they shift some of the pollution to South America and Africa.

E-Autos won’t solve any problems — but they do promise to generate billions in profits.

E-Autos won’t solve any problems — but they do promise to generate billions in profits. Public transport, in contrast, is just too efficient to make much money.

On a square near my home in Neukölln, called the Bohemian Square, a single stretch of road (less than ten metres) was closed to traffic. Almost immediately, urban life blossomed there. Now from morning to night, children are drawing with chalk and young adults are playing ping pong. People are meeting their neighbours. This was impossible before, because the space was reserved for any driver who might want to barrel by. Take out the cars, and you have an actual city.

So let’s ban cars from Berlin. Actually, we don’t even need to ban them. It would be enough to stop subsidising for them. If drivers had to pay the actual costs of cars — for all the injuries, the pollution, the roads, the parking, etc. — not even the richest would be able to afford them. Let’s put all that money into subsidising bikes and giving everyone free — not €9, but free — public transport.

Nathaniel Flakin’s anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.