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Berlin the latest German city to experiment with going car free

Berlin’s Friedrichstraße is set to go car free one Saturday afternoon in December. With the fallout from the diesel scandal continuing and cycle use increasing, could this be a sign of the future for Germany’s urban centres?

Berlin the latest German city to experiment with going car free
DPA

For two hours on the third weekend of December, one of Berlin’s busiest and most famous streets will trade the screeching of tyres and the honking of horns for the ringing of bicycle bells and the chatter of pedestrians. The experiment will take place in Friedrichstraße – a street situated right in the middle of the city and known for daily, end-to-end traffic. 

The two-hour event may be short and relatively small – only a narrow stretch from Kronenstraße to Taubenstraße will be restricted to traffic – but organizers hope it will inspire authorities to consider a permanent restriction. 

“We want to show how beautiful [the Friedrichstraße area] can be if it is made available just to people,” organizer Heiko Bruns from the nonprofit autofrei leben! e.V. (Carfree Living), told The Local.

Earlier in 2018, German courts ruled that diesel cars may be banned in some heavy congested urban areas across Germany – including Friedrichstraße. The ban is currently on ice as the government tries to finalize a compromise plan which includes providing funding to reduce the cost of retrofitting diesel vehicles. 

The event will give Christmas shoppers the chance to skip across the busy street unimpeded, but everyone who takes part will also have a chance to have their voices heard. A ‘speakers corner’ will be established on Mohrenstraße, where the organizers intend to discuss plans for the “city of tomorrow”. 

“We will ask passers-by what they think about the idea of freeing large parts of the historic centre from traffic,” said Braun.

Children will be encouraged to draw their hopes for the future of the city on the sidewalk – in chalk – while adults will be able to do the same on the noticeboards placed throughout the car-free zone. 

There will also be a chance for concerned residents to have their say, with several politicians from Die Linke, the Greens and the SPD in attendance. 

The move isn’t the first time that the idea of pedestrians reclaiming the streets has been discussed. Traffic was stopped at the nearby Brandenburg Gate in 2002, while plans were announced in 2017 to restrict traffic on Unter Den Linden from 2019. Hamburg has also considered with making areas of the city car free in the not-too-distant future. 

The Berliner Morgenpost reported in September that the Berlin Senate had recommended banning vehicle traffic around the Checkpoint Charlie section of Friedrichstraße – only a few hundred metres south – for safety reasons. 

More than 26,000 foot crossings are made across the street in the Checkpoint Charlie area daily, with restrictions recommended to all traffic other than taxis, bicycles and night buses. Previous plans have included turning Friedrichstraße into a ’Sunday Shopping Street’ by closing it to vehicle traffic on Sundays.  

Berlin’s red-red-green coalition stated in 2016 it had no plans to restrict the area to vehicle traffic although that stance appears to have changed in the wake of the above report.

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POLLUTION

‘Infringement on air quality’: EU court slams Germany for pollution in cities

The EU's top court ruled on Thursday that Germany continually violated upper limits for nitrogen dioxide, a polluting gas from diesel motors that causes major health problems, over several years.

'Infringement on air quality': EU court slams Germany for pollution in cities
Cars sit in traffic in Stuttgart's Hauptstätter Straße in July 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Germany infringed air quality rules “by systematically and persistently exceeding” the annual nitrogen dioxide limit in 26 out of 89 areas from 2010 to 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said in its ruling.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, referred the matter to the ECJ in 2018 after almost a decade of warnings that went unaddressed.

The decision against Europe’s top economy echoes a ruling targeting France in October 2019 after the commission stepped up its anti-pollution fight in the wake of the so-called “Dieselgate” scandal that erupted in 2015 with revelations about Germany’s Volkswagen.

The motors caught up in the scandal — in which automakers installed
special emission-cheating devices into their car engines — are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides that the European Environment Agency says are responsible for 68,000 premature deaths per year in the EU.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Germany’s dieselgate scandal

Nitrogen dioxide is toxic and can cause significant respiratory problems as one of the main constituents of traffic-jam smog.

Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic metre — but that level is often exceeded in many traffic-clogged European cities.

The judgement opens the way to possible sanctions at a later stage. However the air quality throughout much of Germany has improved in the last five years, particularly during the shutdowns in the pandemic.

The environment ministry said that 90 cities exceeded national pollution limits in 2016 — the final year covered by the court ruling. By 2019, the number had fallen to 25 and last year, during the coronavirus outbreak, it was just six.

The case involved 26 areas in Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart as well as urban and rural areas in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mainz, Worms/Frankenthal/Ludwigshafen and Koblenz/Neuwied.

“Furthermore, Germany infringed the directive by systematically and
persistently exceeding, during that period, the hourly limit value for NO2 in two of those zones” — the Stuttgart area and the Rhine-Main region.

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