Berlin - Germany’s first traffic light, initially operated by a traffic cop, glows red, yellow, and green. The play of colours seems pretty pointless, as the signal only halts the flow of cars, trams, carriages, bicycles and pedestrians briefly. Then traffic pours across Potsdamer Platz once again, like waves crashing over the asphalt.

Double-decker buses nudge the vehicles ahead of them. Shoppers stream toward Wertheim department store. Those with free time on their hands head to the Rheinterrasse and Wild West Bar in Haus Vaterland, or maybe Café Josty. Taxis bring travellers to the Potsdamer Bahnhof, where steam billows from the locomotives of trains departing for Cologne and Wiesbaden.

Welcome to 1920s Berlin, one of the biggest cities in the world. Congested Potsdamer Platz, at the crossroads of the old city centre and the new west, is a symbol of Berlin and modern urban transport. A generation of writers, filmmakers and artists are inspired by the square, which epitomised the city in constant motion.

“Potsdamer Platz and its eternal bellow,” wrote the poet Paul Boldt. “Your heart of asphalt,” extoled the poet Yvan Goll. Tourists were also impressed. “The city is extraordinary. Truly a metropolis. The traffic is tremendous,” wrote a certain Adolf Hitler on a postcard three years into the First World War. Later, as the Nazi leader who led Germany to disaster, he would never again express himself so enthusiastically about the capital.

Small vehicles, big effect. Members of director Fritz Lang’s film crew prepare the set of Metropolis in 1926. 
Photo:  imago images / Everett Collection

Berlin was movement, speed, mobility. A whirling stream of millions of vehicles and people, a carousel of impositions and challenges. This reputation became entrenched after the founding of Greater Berlin in 1920. In the middle of it all, newcomers were overwhelmed. “Visitors from the country” is what Erich Kästner called them in his eponymous poem about Potsdamer Platz. “They stare so hard, they don’t know a thing. They just stand and marvel. The trains rattle, the cars roar. They’d prefer to be at home. And find Berlin too big.” They are stand-ins for the people at risk of being swallowed up by the tumult.

Cover: Berliner Verlag, photo: Horst von Harbou/Deutsche Kinemathek

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Amidst the traffic of Berlin, in the vast metabolic system of the big city, you could lose yourself – and this was an experience felt not only by tourists. Franz Biberkopf, just released from Tegel prison, stepped out of the number 41 tram at Rosenthaler Platz and walked through the city. “The cars clamoured and honked, one row of houses ran into another row of houses without stopping,” wrote the creator of this literary figure, the neurologist Alfred Döblin, in his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. “Where should I go, poor devil that I am?”

Restless cinematography

Constantly moving Berlin could also be read like a book that one browses with curiosity and growing excitement. Walter Ruttman’s 1927 documentary, Symphony of a Great City, begins with a train ride to Berlin, and celebrates it with staccato cuts and rapid tracking shots. Movement is a fixed constant of the growing metropolis, in which the new seems to crystallise more easily than anywhere else. For those who are ready, it can be a pleasurable and joyous experience.

They smile in bewilderment. And they wait like idiots. And then they stand around on Potsdamer Platz until someone runs them over.

Visitors From the Country (Erich Kästner, 1929)

Erich Mühsam is one of those writers who sets off with his senses awake: “Oh, the splendid crowds! Boy, I think, get lost in the middle of it!” he exclaims in his essay on Leipziger Straße. 

A new genre of literature was created. “Slowly walking through busy streets is a special pleasure. The urgency of the other washes over you. It is like bathing in the surf,” wrote Franz Hessel in Walking in Berlin, an “instruction manual for the art of walking in Berlin. Very close to the wonder of the city, of which it is hardly aware.” Standing still is not very Berlin. Someone out for a stroll is made to feel that very quickly. Anyone walking slowly stands out. “The suspects” is what they are called in Hessel’s book. “I keep getting distrustful looks when I try to stroll among the busy people. I think they fear I am a pickpocket.”

Berlin was already a cycling city

Greater Berlin was also a cycling city. “We have a bicycle party every Sunday morning at five. I have Mieze on my handlebars and Paule has Marie,” sings Claire Waldoff, the Berlin chansonnière who was born in Gelsenkirchen. “She wants to get down at Alex and almost doesn’t come back. She lost a hairclip at Platz der Republik.” The earlier bike bans on Unter den Linden and the obligation to carry a “bicycle licence” are things of the past.

The traffic light at Potsdamer Platz was erected in 1924. The first pedestrian crossing in Germany showed up as a “protective path” in Berlin’s traffic regulations in 1929 and appeared on the streets soon after. Kurt Tucholsky’s alias Ignaz Wrobel made fun of the state authorities that felt compelled to regulate every change with a “crock of over-organisation” out of the naive belief in the controllability of the chaos. Traffic police, phased traffic lights on Friedrichstraße: “official bumbledom” that demonstrated how far removed Berliners were from being real city folk.

Greater Berlin was deemed a laboratory for urban transport. And so, after years of discussion, work began to replace the steam-powered regional trains with modern electric ones. In 1924, the route from Stettiner Vorortbahnhof on Invalidenstraße (today an Asian restaurant) to Bernau became the birthplace of the S-Bahn, Berlin's commuter rail network.

20 pfennigs to ride across Berlin

The BVG (Berlin’s public transportation company) is itself a child of the first decade of Greater Berlin. In the beginning, multiple operators of buses and trains competed for passengers. In 1927, Ernst Reuter, the Social Democrat city councillor in charge of the operation and expansion of transport, implemented a standard fare: 20 pfennigs with the right to transfer lines and modes of transport. This innovation even made it into literature: it’s mentioned in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The decisive step was still to come. In 1929, all metros, trams and buses in the city were brought under one roof. The Berliner Verkehrs-AG, or BVG for short, has existed as one of the world's largest local public transportation companies ever since.

“Mobility for everyone, from one provider,” was Ernst Reuter’s motto. A total of 445 million Reichmarks were budgeted to expand Berlin’s public transport. The metro network nearly doubled to 80 kilometres. It was an unrivalled push for modernisation and it came to a standstill under the Nazis, who were car-lovers.

The Berliner is a slave to his machine. 

Kurt Tucholsky

Increasingly, being a Berliner meant riding public transport - day in and day out. In 1928, trams were used for nearly 900 million trips and the daily number of passengers on the metros and buses amounted to nearly 500,000. In the same year, nearly 70,000 motor vehicles were registered, nearly six times more than in 1921. If the city had been a metropolis of electric mobility before the First World War, with Elektrische Viktoria electric taxis and lorries, the combustion engine now dominated the streets. In 1928, 431 people died in car accidents in Berlin. In 2019, it was 40.

The skies over Berlin

The skies over Berlin also filled up. While activity had previously been concentrated at Johannisthal airfield, where, alongside many men, Melli Beese became one of the first women in aviation to excite the masses with daring manoeuvres, Tempelhof field became the focal point for this new form of mobility. Berlin’s first airport, which began regular service in 1923, was built out of wood. The first flights to Munich and Königsberg were soon supplemented with other destinations. By 1928, Tempelhof had been expanded into the largest airport in Germany.

“The future of Germany is already being lived today in Berlin,” wrote the author Heinrich Mann. “Anyone looking for hope should turn their gaze there,” to the “monstrous workshop.” In terms of transport planning, Berlin earned a reputation as a petri dish for ideas, strategies and innovations. In light of increasing automobile traffic, Martin Wagner, city councillor for urban planning, with others, began planning the car-friendly conversion of the city in the late 1920s. This was an avant-garde debate which became part of the planning mainstream after the Second World War and led to radical changes in the cityscape, not only in Berlin.

Tunnel vision. The traffic on Berlin’s city expressway rolls through Wilmersdorf, passing beneath this residential building on Schlangenbader Straße. The structure is several hundred metres long and was built in the 1970s.
Photo:  dpa picture alliance / Bildagentur-online / Joko

Plans were made for a network with three ring roads and 18 radial streets. Motorways were to cut through stony Berlin. One was to run along Leipziger Straße on a viaduct. Mühsam and Hessel would have had to wander in its shadow. The future could already be seen in Grunewald, where the first motorway in the world, the “automobile and traffic training road” (AVUS), opened in 1921. Anyone who wanted to use the road, which first opened to the public in 1940, had to be able to afford it. The toll was 10 marks.

However, the euphoria of participating in flourishing modernity is initially abstract. In short, urban transport is stressful. “The Berliner doesn’t get to experience much of life unless he earns money,” complained the journalist and writer Kurt Tucholsky in Berlin! Berlin! “The Berliner is a slave to his machine. He is a passenger, theatregoer, restaurant guest and a worker. Less a human being. The machine plucks and tears at his nerve endings and he succumbs without resistance.”

Even if Berlin’s streets and sidewalks were wider on average than in other places, the pressure of density determined the mood on the road as much back then as it does today. The period of standstill and the agony that fell across the former capital during the division of Germany has long-since passed. The streets are increasingly crowded: in central areas, pedestrians on the sidewalks have to share space with rental bikes, electric scooters and the occasional illegally parked car. Although the city’s transport policy has been committed to promoting environmentally and climate-friendly means of transport for years, the number of motor vehicles registered in Berlin increased to over 1.2 million in 2017.

Urban lab: Pop-up bike lanes, pop-up pedestrian zones

Greater Berlin, now 100 years old, has another chance to become a lab for mobility. Compared to the German average, few Berliners own cars. More than 40 per cent of households don’t have one. Berlin’s streets are wide, which makes it possible to redistribute space generously. “Pop-up bike lanes” intended to make room for the growing cycle traffic at low cost are creating a furore internationally. “Pop-up pedestrian zones” are to follow.

A unique quality of Berlin is how mobility is passionately discussed and how many people participate in the debate. Ignaz Wrobel noticed that too. No one in Paris cares if tram tracks are removed somewhere, wrote Tucholsky’s alter ego. In Berlin, a public controversy breaks out.

Berlin is always on the move. But be careful; it can also be dangerous, as Erich Kästner wrote in his poem Visitors From the Country. “They let their legs go limp from fear. They do everything wrong. They smile in bewilderment. And they wait like idiots. And then they stand around on Potsdamer Platz until someone runs them over.”