Where more space and safety for bicycle traffic was planned, there are now cars: on Ollenhauer Strasse in the Reinickendorf district of Berlin, one aspect of the new capital city transport policy was recently particularly vivid. The bicycle symbols on the bike lanes that had already been set up were hastily pasted over with yellow stripes.

The CDU-led Senate has stopped dozens of other planned bicycle and cycle expressways for the time being. And a 500-meter-long section of Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse – a well-known shopping street – was reopened to traffic this weekend.

In view of the climate crisis, many European metropolises have realigned their transport policies in recent years. Paris, Barcelona, ​​Milan and London are trying to curb car traffic with 30 km/h zones and inner-city driving bans, among other things. Other cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam started prioritizing cycling infrastructure decades ago. And Berlin had also set national standards with an ambitious mobility law.

Is the role backwards now?

But now many fear that the new Senate – led by the CDU since the repeat election in February – will turn everything back on. Thousands of people protested at a bicycle demo last weekend against the temporary construction freeze for cycle paths and against a further increase in car traffic. “The Berlin CDU distinguishes itself with an anti-bicycle policy at the expense of the safety of children and seniors,” criticizes Robin Kulpa, traffic expert at the German Environmental Aid (DUH). “Improvements for cycling and walking, but also for buses and trains, should only be made if there are no parking spaces or car lanes.”

Since then, the Senate administration has been trying to smooth things over. The stop of the cycle paths is only temporary, emphasizes Transport Senator Manja Schreiner. They should be checked and prioritized and open soon. Governing Mayor Kai Wegner (both CDU) recently announced that he intends to speed up the expansion of cycle paths significantly more than the previous government. However, he emphasized that his policy “against the car” was over. Ambitious traffic turnaround sounds different to many.

For years, the transport sector has regularly exceeded the federal government’s climate targets. According to calculations by the Federal Environment Agency, traffic in Germany emitted around nine million tonnes more CO2 in the past year alone than would have been permitted under the Climate Protection Act for 2022. According to the Federal Statistical Office, annual CO2 emissions from road traffic increased by more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2021. According to the law, greenhouse gas emissions from transport must be halved by 2030 compared to 1990. The UBA announced in March that this goal could not be achieved with the political measures currently adopted.

A role model for years

Car traffic is a key driver of emissions. Municipalities in particular therefore have an important role to play in persuading more people to switch from cars to the environmental network of buses, trains and bicycles. For years, Berlin’s transport policy was considered a role model in this sense. In 2018, the then state government passed the so-called Mobility Act. The Senate had developed the cornerstones together with bicycle and environmental associations and not least at the urging of the “Bicycle Referendum” initiative. The core: The environmental association should have priority over car traffic in the capital.

By 2030, the law in Berlin prescribes a dense cycle path network of cycle expressways and normal routes with a total length of 2700 kilometers. Admittedly, the Senate has so far only made slow progress with this project. But especially during the corona pandemic, so-called pop-up cycle paths were created in many places, for which more and more parking spaces and car lanes had to make way.

From the point of view of the traffic researcher Thorsten Koska, the driver of this traffic policy was always the people of Berlin. “It has also become such a progressive law because there was a civil society initiative,” says the co-head of the research area mobility and transport policy at the Wuppertal Institute, a non-profit research institution. “This social commitment still exists, but we are now dealing with a polarization in Berlin that is politically desired by actors who are supposed to slow down the traffic turnaround.”

Symbolic point of contention Friedrichstrasse

Time and again, Berlin’s transport policy gets caught up in ideological debates. This applies, for example, to the discussion about the controversial further construction of the A100 city motorway through the middle of inhabited districts, which the CDU and FDP in particular support. During the election campaign, an ideologically charged dispute arose about blocking a section of Friedrichstrasse that was of no strategic importance to cars.

Other European capitals show that things can be done in a more non-ideological way: the socialist Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo has been in office since 2014 – despite her very ambitious transport policy in favor of bicycle and pedestrian traffic. “It was unfortunate in Berlin, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says traffic researcher Koska. Rather, people need to be convinced of the benefits of a cycle- and pedestrian-friendly policy.

An ambitious traffic turnaround in Berlin is also being noticed elsewhere, he says. “Of course, what is happening in Berlin has a certain symbolic effect, because Berlin was a pioneer in the traffic turnaround for a long time and, of course, what is happening in this direction in Germany’s largest city is being closely observed.”