Is Berlin set to become car-free in the next few years?

A citizens' initiative called 'Berlin autofrei' (car-free Berlin) certainly hopes so. It's drafted a proposal - currently being reviewed by the city's Senate - to cut the number of cars in the city and create the world's largest reduced-car area.

Is Berlin set to become car-free in the next few years?
Gathering signatures for the 'Berlin autofrei' citizens' initiative on Berlin's Leipziger Straße in April. picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Officially launched last October, the car-free initiative has the 20,000 valid signatures it needs to take it forward to the next step of a referendum procedure, newspaper Tagesspiegel reported on Friday.

It submitted more than 50,000 signatures at the beginning of August, of which the Senate of Berlin recognised 27,000 as valid. However, more than a fifth of the signatures were not checked because the quorum had already been reached.

The Senate now has five months to examine the initiative’s legislative proposal, The Berlin Law For Road Use Based On The Common Good (‘Berliner Gesetz für gemeinwohlorientierte Straßennutzung’). Provided there are no legal concerns, it will then forward the draft with a political recommendation to the House of Representatives (‘das Abgeordnetenhaus’), Berlin’s state parliament.

If the bill is rejected at this point, then the initiative plans to move to the referendum, for which they’ll need 175,000 signatures, the paper said.

If they’re successful in collecting that many, then all eligible Berliners could vote on the law in 2023.

“We are now eagerly awaiting the election. It is used to decide whether the turning point for traffic in Berlin will continue to progress so slowly or whether it will pick up speed. We want to convince the new House of Representatives of our car-free law,” said Nina Noblé, spokeswoman for the initiative.

If it’s passed, the law would significantly restrict traffic within Berlin’s S-Bahn ring. All streets, except federal highways, within that area would become car-reduced streets with use limited to walking, cycling and public transport, the group explained.

While necessary car journeys would still be permitted, the initiative wants to see the number of private journeys limited to 12 per year initially.

However, exceptions would be made for tradespeople and those with restricted mobility and, of course, emergency and public services.

This is not the first time that the city’s seen car-free schemes either.

Last year, a section of one of the capital’s busiest streets, Friedrichstraße, in the Mitte district, was closed to traffic from June to November to find out what effects this would have on pedestrian, bicycle, car and delivery traffic in the area.

READ ALSO: Part of central Berlin set to be closed to traffic for six months

The pilot project was then extended as the pandemic had made it difficult to make comparisons and would now end in October 2021, Tagesspiegel reported previously. 

In 2018 Friedrichstraße was closed to traffic for several hours in December and 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 making areas of the city car free in the not-too-distant future. 

The Berliner Morgenpost reported previously 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. 

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.