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

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.

Berlin Friedrichstraße cycle path
A cyclist rides down the car-free section of Friedrichstraße. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

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. 

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‘Clear indication of climate change’: Germany logs warmest year on record

Looking at data from 2,000 measuring systems around Germany, the German Weather Service (DWD) said that 2022 marked the warmest year on record through November.

'Clear indication of climate change': Germany logs warmest year on record

“Never since 1881 has the period from January to November in Germany been so warm as in 2022,” said DWD spokesman Uwe Kirsche in a statement on Wednesday.

The average temperature for the first eleven months of 2022 was 11.3C, according to the weather service in Offenbach. The previous high was set in 2020, at 11.1C for this period. 

The temperature average for autumn alone was 10.8 degrees – an entire 2C degrees higher than it was between 1961 to 1990, which is used by meteorologists around the globe as a point of reference. 

Clear indication of climate change

The period from January to October was already the warmest on record, with an average temperature of 11.8C. For meteorologists, autumn ends with November, whereas in calendar terms, it lasts until December 21st. 

It is “a clear indication of climate change;” that the warmest October months of the last 140 years all fall in this millennium, said DWD.

READ ALSO: ‘A glimpse into our climate future’: Germany logs warmest October on record

Autumn 2022 could have easily been mistaken for summer in some regions of Germany, it said. The mercury reached the highest in Kleve on the Lower Rhine on September 5th, where temperatures soared to a sizzling 32.3C.

weather Germany september

Beach goers in Westerland, Schleswig-Holstein on September 25th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

Rainy regions

The mild weather extended into November, before temperatures took a dramatic dip in many parts of the country. 

In the Oberharz am Brocken, the mercury dropped all the way to -11.6C on November 20th, the nationwide low for this autumn.

READ ALSO: Germany to see first snowfall after mild November

But despite the early warm spells, autumn was also “slightly wetter than average,” according to DWD. An average of around 205 liters of precipitation per squar metre fell across Germany.

That was about twelve percent more than in the reference period from 1961 to 1990. Compared to 1991 to 2020, the increase was about eight percent.

The Black Forest and the Alps received the most rainfall. Utzenfeld in the southern Black Forest had the highest daily precipitation in Germany with 86 litres per square meter on October 14th. In contrast, it remained very dry in the northeast. 

However, there were also a fair few bright, sunny days for people to enjoy. According to DWD, the sun shone for a good 370 hours this autumn – almost 20 percent more than in the period from 1961 to 1990 and 15 percent more than in the period from 1991 to 2020.

The North German Lowlands saw the most sun, with residents there getting a solid 400 hours of sunshine over autumn. 

Temperatures to drop this week

Just in time for the start of the meteorological winter on December 1st, temperatures will drop significantly into the low negatives in many parts of the country.

On the weekend, there is a risk of permafrost in some regions of eastern Germany. The nights will also become increasingly frosty, with snow expected in many regions by the end of the week.

Roads are expected to turn icy, but with no major snowstorms, said DWD.

READ ALSO: Will Germany see more snow this winter?