In Berlin, a car-free future

Urban Tech Republic terminal. The screens on bus line 109 already show the future of the old Tegel airport. A future born on November 8, 2020 after take-off and the certificate of honor on the very last flight: flight AF1235 on its way to Paris-Charles de Gaulle. An almost heartbreaking farewell as Berliners loved Tegel for its ease of access, its size more reminiscent of a provincial airport and its 1960s architecture, the German capital.

“We want to write the city’s future here”, Gudrun Sack announces immediately. The general manager of the Tegel Projekt, an entity authorized by the state of Berlin and which oversees the planning of these approximately 500 hectares, receives guests in the airport’s former administrative building. Large explanatory panels occupy the entire ground floor. Accessible to the public, visitors discover a post-industrial vision centered around three elements: Urban Tech Republic, a park dedicated to the development of 21st century urban technologies; a huge space for leisure and greenery; and Quartier Schumacher – 5,000 new homes with sustainable building materials, minimal energy consumption and car-free streets. Or rather freed from cars, as the German term “autofrei” indicates, attached to this residential area designed for 10,000 people. “The need to own a car is over, we must give the streets back to the people,” says Gudrun Sack.

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Unique in Europe

Six-story buildings, schools, kindergartens, shops, medical centers, meeting places. All crossed by streets with a width of 15 to 18 meters. Without concrete barriers or bollards, but with digital number plate recognition systems. Ambulances and delivery people will be able to enter the neighborhood without fear of a fine. For the others, you have to pay several hundred euros. According to the brochures, a unique project in Europe whose work will start at the end of this year with the first apartments delivered in 2027.

Stefan Carsten has been based in Berlin since 1993, and is an urban geographer and futurist. Based on today’s technological, social and economic data, he draws trends for the future: “Thinking about and improving the quality of city life has become an economic asset. Nobody wants and wants to live in a polluted city where children on bicycles are run over by motorized vehicles. The origin of the industrialized city, according to him, the car will become obsolete in the urban environments of our tertiary economies, infused with knowledge, creativity and information. Stefan Carsten carefully observes the Tegel site. Built as a model even before it emerged from the ground, Quartier Schumacher still left him skeptical. A car-free neighborhood does not necessarily mean car-free residents. The city would not gain much from collective garages near homes. The futurist prefers to cite the example of certain cooperative habitats in Switzerland, especially in the canton of Geneva, where people have to undertake in writing not to own a car – a prerequisite for housing there.

If the plans are not yet final, Gudrun Sack promises mobility hubs on the edge of the Schumacher district: self-service cargo bikes and individual bikes, shared cars or even autonomous buses gathered in the same place to drive to the two stations. nearest subway, or even directly in the city. A new tram line is also to be built.

“This project is definitive proof that Berliners want to live in an urban space free of cars,” judge Benni Wasmer, involved in the “Berlin autofrei” initiative, which campaigns for a car-free city center. More than 50,000 signatures have already been submitted to the Berlin Senate to force it to organize a local referendum. “The car industry made the Germans believe that an individual without a car would not be a free person,” continues Benni Wasmer. But that’s a lie. We need liberated spaces with a diversity of mobility. This is where freedom is.”

Today, 60% of public space in Berlin is occupied by cars. While only 14% of journeys are made in an individual vehicle, which remains parked for an average of 23 hours a day. In addition to protected urban islands such as the future Schumacher district, the initiative “Berlin autofrei” defends a global vision that would benefit the whole society, as a result of a democratic vote.

Neighborhood blocked off

This swelling of the earth to supply the streets was recently expressed on the 1st floor of the town hall in the district of Lichtenberg in the former East Berlin. The chairman of the Order and Traffic Commission expressed his astonishment as he welcomed today’s large crowd. They are almost a hundred citizens who have invested the room with the impressive ceiling height. Some wave placards that read: “Streets where life is good”, “For neighborhoods without cars”. Petitions, participation process: the inhabitants of the small Kaskelkiez neighborhood gathered around the concept of “Kiezblocks”. This housing sector, victim of transit traffic, is crossed every day by several thousand cars going to the city center. Oliver Jakubith sits in the front row. “We are here to reclaim public space, launches this resident of the district, who has collected many signatures. In the 20th century, the motorist was a respectable being, a symbol of prosperity. Today he is seen as a person who has arrogant rights and space to the detriment of the majority.And he clings to his privileges which no longer need to be.

The idea of ​​”Kiezblock” is simple and cheap: by multiplying the one-way lanes, the motorist turns in circles and can only drive in and out of one and the same lane. With a speed limit of 10 km/h. Transit traffic then loses all its interest. After many years of fighting with a town hall that has always prioritized traffic, the residents are finally on their way. The elected representatives say they are ready to vote for a “blocked district”. A first for Berlin and a defeat for car traffic scrutinized by many other neighborhoods ready to follow suit.

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A fractured city accustomed to the great upheavals of history, Berlin seems to be emerging as the laboratory for the future of our cities. Faced with the climate crisis, citizens and certain private economic actors are getting involved, tired of waiting for a Berlin senate, unable to keep its promises, to collect dust at the bottom of the drawers. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that Berlin can live up to its reputation as a metropolis where anything is still possible. During the night, temporary cycle paths appeared everywhere. Media around the world have jumped on this voluntary policy. Despite the lifting of containment measures and the resumption of car traffic, many of these tracks have been maintained.

The new law on mobility allows for 3,000 kilometers of cycle paths and must be an example of the turning point in mobility. The Senate proudly boasts of the precursor project in the Schumacher district and the complete restructuring of Tegel Airport. That may not be enough in the eyes of urban geographer Stefan Carsten. “Even more than a turning point in mobility, we need a turning point in public space,” says the man, who also defends a new way of living together in the city. Neighborhoods seeking to free themselves from cars, the aggressiveness shown by some cyclists, all these are just expressions of a desire to reclaim public space. And pedestrians and cyclists must unite in this struggle. Because this space is no longer enough for everyone. A battle that primarily targets the one who still occupies the dominant position there today: the motorist.

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