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Berlin could create the biggest car-free urban area in the world

There’s a campaign to ban vehicles throughout Berlin – and a decision might be made as soon as February

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

Ah, good old Berlin. While everyone else dithers and delays, unwittingly letting the climate crisis reach tipping point, citizens in the German capital are taking drastic action. A whopping 50,000 Berliners have signed a petition for a law to ban private cars from huge swathes of the city – paving the way for a greener, healthier, quieter and safer future.

The Berlin senate is now formally considering the idea, and a decision could come as soon as February. If they reject the petition, a second round of signature collection begins. If that then reaches 170,000 signees, the suggestion will automatically appear on a citizen ballot in 2023, meaning the people can vote on a car-free city (and override the senate decision).

The Berlin Autofrei campaign wants the entire area encircled by the S-Bahn train network – an enormous 88 square kilometres, roughly equivalent to London’s zones 1 and 2 – to be largely free of private cars. If it goes through, the law would create the biggest car-free urban area in the world.

There would, of course, be plenty of exemptions to the ban. Those who depend on a car for trade, as well as those who need one because of impaired mobility, would still be allowed to drive. Emergency services would obviously be exempt and, because sometimes people really do need to drive (to move house, for example), each citizen would be permitted up to 12 rented car journeys a year.

So why does Berlin Autofrei want no cars, rather than electric cars? Nik Kaestner, one of the locals behind the campaign, told The Guardian: ‘We would need about half of cars to go electric next year in order to meet the federal government’s own targets for transportation emissions.

‘That clearly isn’t going to happen – currently only 1.3 percent of vehicles in Germany are electric. So the only solution is to reduce the amount of driving that’s happening, not just to change how we drive.’

Plus, there are many more benefits to banning cars than simply reducing air pollution and tackling global warming. Without parked cars and traffic, more public space would be freed up for greenery, pedestrians and cyclists. Fewer cars also means fewer traffic accidents.

Berlin is one of the most politically progressive capital cities in Europe. Last year, a people’s referendum voted to expropriate thousands of houses from Berlin’s biggest landlords, while in 2017 Berliners called for friendlier cycling laws – and got them. 

Considering Berlin’s Neukölln was recently crowned one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, is it really any surprise that the city is carving out a greener future for the planet? No, it isn’t. If only every city was a bit more like Berlin.

More futuristic plans:

Tokyo is showing other cities how to cool the eff down

A huge new city is being built in the US desert – but is it just greenwashing?

How Paris plans to become Europe’s greenest city by 2030

More on climate crisis

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