Car-free Berlin?

Campaigners want a new referendum that would - if successful - place significant restrictions on the use of private cars within the S-Bahn ring. 

Berliners own more than 1.2 million cars. 
Berliners own more than 1.2 million cars. Berliner Zeitung/ Markus Wächter

Berlin-Despite the city's green transport policies, the number of cars in Berlin continues to rise. According to the motor vehicle office, more than 1.2 million cars were registered in the city at the beginning of 2020, almost 60,000 more than five years ago.

But now a citizens' initiative called Berlin autofrei  ("Berlin car-free") is hoping to reduce the flood of cars, at least in central Berlin. The group is calling for a referendum or plebiscite on the issue.

"We would like to significantly reduce car traffic within the S-Bahn ring so that Berlin becomes a more liveable city. We believe that the demand for a car-free inner city in Berlin is long overdue. That's why we're taking Berlin's transport policy into our own hands: direct democracy with a referendum," members of the group say. 

The campaigners don't want to banish motor vehicles altogether. "Necessary journeys will of course still be possible, for example when it comes to buses, commercial and delivery vehicles, the fire brigade or people with reduced mobility," the initiative emphasises. However, it said that the number of cars within the S-Bahn ring could be radically reduced.

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The result would be less noise and improved air quality, according to the campaign: "Children could go to school safely on their own. In a car-free central Berlin there would be more space for everyone - whether for sports, walking or play."

Berlin's transport minister, Regine Günther (Grüne), has been in office since the end of 2016. She says transforming a city that has been car-friendly for decades takes time. But the environmental activists are impatient. The Senat's plans have failed to stem the growth in traffic, they say.

The first step of the referendum procedure requires at least 20,000 valid signatures from supporters. If the Berlin state parliament rejects the demands, the second step is the actual referendum. In order for a referendum to take place, 170,000 signatures of support from Berliners must be collected within four months. If they make it through that phase, the actual referendum or plebescite - where every eligble voter can participate - must be held within four months. Here, the hurdles are even higher. At least 613,000 yes-votes are required - and more yes-votes than no-votes, of course.

Half of Berlin households don't own a car

Around 49 per cent of Berlin households have a car, according to the Office of Statistics. In Brandenburg the figure is about 83 per cent. Only 381.8 motor vehicles were registered per 1000 inhabitants in Berlin in 2017. Car ownership is lowest in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, with 285 vehicles per 1000. The German average is 687.

The low level of car use in Berlin suggests that Berlin autofrei  could overcome the first two hurdles without much difficulty. The referendum on improving cycle infrastructure (Volksentscheid Fahrrad) about five years ago showed there is a high level of support for green transport. Some 105,425 signatures were collected for the initial petition alone.

But the Volksentscheid Fahrrad never moved on to the referendum stage. Under the current SPD-Linke-Grüne coalition governing Berlin, parts of the "mobility law" campaigners were calling for were passed by the Berlin parliament in 2018. The law is intended to provide comprehensive cycle infrastructure, one of the cycle activists' original demands. But Berlin autofrei goes further and could mean a de facto end to private car ownership for many Berliners - so their chances of success are far from guaranteed.