How Berlin Friedrichstraße ended up at the centre of the car-free debate

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected] • 4 Nov, 2022 Updated Fri 4 Nov 2022 11:28 CEST
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A cyclist rides down the car-free section of Friedrichstraße. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

One of Berlin's most iconic streets has become embroiled in a fierce debate over the future of mobility in Germany after a decision to block part of the road off to cars was challenged in court. Here's the latest on what's happening.


What's going on?

In August 2020, the Berlin Senate launched a traffic trial on one of the busiest streets in the city. A section of Berlin Friedrichstraße, which stretches from the north to the south of the city centre, was cordoned off to cars and other motorised vehicles. Pop-up cycle paths, which had become popular during the pandemic, were placed in the centre of the street to create a cyclists' highway. 

As a bridge between Kreuzberg in the south and the northern part of Mitte, Friedrichstraße is a major thoroughfare for traffic passing through the city. With numerous shops and attractions dotted along it - including Checkpoint Charlie and Unter den Linden - it's also a hotspot for tourists. Before part of the street was pedestrianised, it was awash with motorists at almost all hours of the day and night. 

READ ALSO: E-cars and sleeper trains: How Germany’s new government will reform transport


Initially, banning cars from the section of the street between Französische Straße and Leipziger Straße was pitched as an experiment that would run until October 2021. However, when the SPD, Greens and Left Party were re-elected to the Berlin Senate in September 2021, the parties agreed to prolong the car-free zone and develop plans to turn Friedrichstraße into a green, pedestrian-friendly promenade. Since then, the signage redirecting cars and the cycle lanes along Friedrichstraße have simply remained in place. 

For many Berliners, this appears to have been a popular decision. A survey conducted in May this year found that 82 percent of respondents wanted Friedrichstraße to remain car-free, while around half of respondents said the lack of cars was a major incentive to visit the area.

Sounds great - so what went wrong?

While the car-free stretch of Friedrichstraße has garnered a lot of public support, not everyone was in favour of it. In 2022, local businesspeople founded a campaign group titled "Rettet die Friedrichstraße" ("Save Friedrichstraße") calling for motor vehicles to once again be given access to the street.

"What is considered a success by politicians and is to be extended to other sections of the street, is declared a failure by medium-sized companies, traders, hotels, restaurants and residents," the campaign group wrote on their website.

"Store closures, declining sales, lack of visitors, standstill, wasteland, the appearance of a permanent construction site and Berlin's most embarrassing new bicycle race track - none of this increases the quality of stay in this Mitte area or turns the street into a promenade."

As well as circulating a petition, one local shop owner involved in the campaign challenged the road closures in Berlin's Administrative Court. 

On October 24th, the challenge was upheld and the Senate was given two weeks to clear away the traffic signs and cycle lanes. 

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with each other?


Why did the court make that decision?

As is often the case in Germany, the decision was largely based on whether the Senate had followed the correct procedures for changing the traffic regulations along Friedrichstraße.

In order to extend the new rules beyond the duration of the trial, senators require a solid legal basis to do so, the court explained.

According to German traffic law, local governments can choose to reorganise the flow of traffic to make an area more pleasant and improve the quality of life for residents. However, this is an arduous process that involves formulating a full concept for how the new traffic system will work and obtaining the relevant road traffic orders from the borough council (in this case, Mitte). 

Car-free section of Berlin Friedrichstraße

A handful of cyclists in the car-free section of Friedrichstraße. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Apparently, the Senate is currently working towards this as an end-goal - but the process hasn't yet been completed.

Until it has, blocking access to cars can only be justified for road safety reasons, the court explained. 

That means that there's currently no adequate legal basis for Friedrichstraße remaining pedestrianised, the court added. 

How has the Senate responded?

In the immediate aftermath of the court ruling, Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) declared that the decision would be respected and cars would return to Friedrichstraße within a matter of weeks.

Her statement was met with an impatient response from Transport Senator Bettina Jarasch (Greens), who told RBB: "I'm not sure Franziska Giffey understood exactly what this ruling was about."

According to Jarasch, the court had simply taken issue with the amount of time that had elapsed between the end of the traffic trial and the official closure of the road to motor vehicles. 


Jarasch said she had queried the borough of Mitte on how quickly a road traffic order for the pedestrianisation of Friedrichstraße could be obtained, along with another order that would turn the adjacent Charlottenstraße into a cycle lane. 

After a week of open disagreement between the SPD-and Green-led factions of Berlin's government, Giffey finally spoke out to say that the Senate would reach a unified stance by November 8th, with Jarasch taking a leading role in crafting a response to the court decision. 

So, are cars set for a comeback in Berlin Friedrichstraße? 

That largely hinges on what the Senate decides to do next. One option - apparently favoured by Jarasch - is to appeal the decision in the High Administrative Court. 

However, one issue with this approach is that the ruling could be upheld in an even higher court than the previous one, strengthening the case against the car-free zone on Friedrichstraße. 

Despite the challenges, the Transport Senator continues to sound a bullish note, stating that "nothing has changed" about the Senate's plans to create a green, car-free promenade in the centre of Berlin. 

Jarasch now wants to redirect cyclists away from the car-free section of the street in order to make it a safer and calmer environment for pedestrians. Under her latest proposals, the cycle lanes will be moved to Charlottenstraße - a street that runs parallel to Friedrichstraße. That would free up space on the street for shoppers, tourists and diners. 

What does this tell us about Germany's transition towards green transport?

When Germany's traffic-light coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP entered government last December, the so-called Verkehrswende (transport or mobility transition) was one of their central goals.

Projects like the €9 ticket and its successor - the €49 Deutschlandticket - have been a cornerstone of their strategy to encourage people to use more public transport and leave their cars at home. 

But the debate over Friedrichstraße shows just how tricky the transition will be. 

READ ALSO: ‘Deutschlandticket’: What you need to know about Germany’s new €49 ticket

Traffic jam on a Berlin motorway

A traffic jam on the motorway in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

For one, this stretch of the capital is incredibly well-connected to the public transport network, with numerous S- and U-Bahn stations within spitting distance (and along the street itself). 

When transferring the right-of-way from drivers towards pedestrians and cyclists is controversial here, the challenges could be far greater in cities and towns that are much less well-served by buses and trains. 

The story of Friedrichstraße also highlights the fact that many of Germany's traffic laws stem from a pre-Verkehrswende age. The rights of drivers to access the city are very much enshrined in law, meaning that exceptional circumstances (like significant safety problems) are needed to rapidly change or remove these rights.

If these laws stay the same, councils in other cities may also face delays when they try to make big changes to traffic rules in order to make their cities greener. 




Imogen Goodman 2022/11/04 11:28

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