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What is Stronger: Car Culture or the Desire to Be a Green City?

Thursday, Juni 1, 2023

The new government in Berlin, elected in February, has shifted from the outgoing governments focus on public transit and active travel to the rights of motorists, Bloomberg reports.  

Even before the election in February, Berlin struggled reducing car dependency. Yes, Berlin may be German’s least car-dependent big city (26 percent of trips with cars compared to the next lowest, Hamburg with 32%), but it is still a capital of the nation that invented the gas-powered automobile and the modern superhighway. Berlin’s previous administration had been working on reducing transport-related emissions and car-usage in the central city. But since February, Berlin is arguably moving in the opposite direction. Though Berlin has lower car ownership than many European capitals, a recent poll showed that 54% of local respondents favour extending the A100 highway. “Berlin likes to compare itself with major cities, likes Paris, London, Milan or Vienna” says Weert Canzler, a researcher at Berlin’s Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung social science institute, “but in all of these other cities the car is being systematically forced out, with higher parking fees, reduced lanes or anti-car campaigns.” Berlin’s relative car-friendliness could relate partly to specific local factors. For example, Berlin has wider streets than those of the average European metropolis, it is made up of a network of spread-out, car-accessible neighbourhoods. However, the shift toward a car-centric city concerns not only Berlin but the country in general. The government approved more than 300 motorway expansions, and abandoned sector-specific climate targets for transport.

Canzler sees the roots of Germany’s ongoing love of private car ownership in political decisions made during the post-war period. “Everything was done politically and legally,” he said, to enable “the so-called American way of life — car, fridge, single-family house.” Today, Germany’s proportion of cars to people remains far above the EU average, with notably more vehicles per 1,000 people than France, Spain, Sweden, or the Netherlands. Even though there are obvious downsides of this embrace of automobility, car-centric thinking is so entrenched in Germany that it falls behind international standards on sustainable transport. The country has been leading a coalition attempting to loosen the details of the EU’s scheduled 2035 ban on gas and diesel-fuelled cars. Moreover, Germany has also rejected proposal to limit speeds on the autobahns, though Germany’s Federal Environment Agency points out that this could save 11 million tons of CO2 a year.

Finally, due to political pressure, Germany has abandoned transportation sector targets within its overall national emission reduction strategy - a move appreciated by groups like the German Automobile Association (VDA). “We must shape the transformation in such a way that we do not lose the backing and support of the people,” said VDA president Hildegard Müller in a statement. “It is now crucial not to fall into populist debates about bans, but to promote the transformation towards climate neutrality in a sustainable and strategic manner.”

Personal Comment:

I would like to highlight words of Giulio Mattioli that the article ends on. Mattiioli is a transport researcher at the Technical University of Dortmund and he points out that some of the complacency in Berlin comes from the fact that the city has both a lot of automobile infrastructure as well as public transit. This abundance means people don’t feel a need for significant change. I am not sure that I agree with this point of view. On the one hand, it sounds like a reasonable way of approaching it. We allow all modes of transport on the roads, and everyone is happy. However, on the other hand, how do we encourage an increasingly sustainable transport system? Especially, considering that people tend to make decisions based on their long-term habits, cultural context, and, quite simply, convenience.

The Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems