Even bigger, even heavier: the number of SUVs in Berlin has tripled

Climate debate? What climate debate? New data shows that bulky vehicles are trending more than ever. The number of compact and mid-size cars is falling.

German actor Jürgen Vogel at the German premiere of the Jaguar F-Pace SUV in October 2020.
German actor Jürgen Vogel at the German premiere of the Jaguar F-Pace SUV in October 2020.imago

Berlin-The bigger the better! The discussion about global warming has apparently left most car buyers in Berlin cold. Gas guzzling, voluminous vehicles are selling like hot cakes - despite the public debate about the climate crisis. While the number of small cars in Berlin has stagnated and the mid-size fleet has shrunk over the past six years, the number of SUVs and off-road vehicles has increased significantly, according to data from the Federal Motor Transport Authority, which was compiled by a subsidiary of the opinion research institute infas. 

The statistics show that the number of SUVs with Berlin plates has more than tripled between 2014 and 2020. Unsurprisingly, automobile club ADAC expressed understanding for the trend, while the leftwing Die Linke party was sharply criticical.

Despite the dreams of the Greens and climate activists, the automobile era is far from over in Berlin, the data on car ownership reveals. "The basic message is that the number of cars in Berlin is rising, not falling," said Robert Follmer, who heads transport and regional research at infas. Another finding: "There are more big cars - so more space is needed. And a turnaround isn't in sight."

More and more company cars

The SPD-Linke-Grüne (red-red-green) coalition in Berlin wants citizens to switch to cycling or public transport. But Berliners aren't playing along.  From 2014 to 2020, the number of cars rose by more than 67,000, 5.8 per cent more. While around 1.154 million cars were registered in Berlin at the beginning of this period, the number grew to over 1.221 million by 2020.

What is striking is the large bump in the number of commercially used passenger cars, which grew by 22.7 per cent to almost 167,000. "This can be explained primarily by the fact that more and more company cars are being used in Berlin," explained Andreas Knie, mobility researcher at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin. Large companies are increasingly present in the city - and for them, such vehicles are part and parcel. "Company cars are a means of saving taxes," Knie said.

Another finding stands out. Although the number of sub-compacts in Berlin rose by 18.3 per cent to more than 102,000, small cars and mid-sized cars have fallen out of favour with drivers. The increase in the number of small cars was just 0.1 per cent. Last year there were about 228,000 vehicles in this segment. In the compact class, the number of vehicles fell by 3.8 per cent to 307,000. The decline was even greater in the mid-size class, which shrank by 18.3 per cent to just under 156,000 vehicles. In the upper mid-size class, the decline was 9.6 per cent. The number of vehicles in this segment fell to around 62,000.

On the other hand, drivers seem to believe "big is beautiful". The luxury class in Berlin expanded by 11.8 per cent to almost 12,000 cars, while the number of SUVs shot up by 216.5 per cent to almost 91,000. The number of off-road vehicles increased by an impressive 74.4 per cent to more than 58,000. The statistics also show an uptick in the number of sports cars: 21,000, or growth of 13.6 per cent. The number of minivans in Berlin rose by 5.3 per cent to more than 54,000. In addition, there are about as many large vans. The increase there was 12.7 per cent.

Let's not forget utility vehicles - pickups, high-roof station wagons and minibuses registered as passenger cars. In this segment, the Berlin authorities recorded a 4.8 per cent increase, almost 59,000 such vehicles were on the road in Berlin last year. 

So much for the numbers. Reactions to the stats were mixed.

"It's noticeable that the number of oversized cars on our roads has increased," said Kristian Ronneburg, a transport politician from Die Linke. "This is a trend that is very worrying when more and more SUVs and off-road vehicles are on the road, which have high fuel consumption, are over-motorised, take up an enormous amount of space and often cause serious consequences in accidents due to their robustness." The MP called for a general speed limit of 30 km/h, more measures against speeders and lower emission limits.

Still, Berlin's not a major car town

ADAC spokeswoman Sandra Hass, on the other hand, argued for a more nuanced view of developments. Every fifth car buyer in Germany purchases an SUV, she said. "Consumers cite comfort and safety as the main reasons for buying one: better overview, comfortable entry - particularly important for older drivers - the amount of space and, above all, the greater sense of safety." Manufacturers are responding to these wishes.

The often-maligned bulky models that hardly fit into a parking space are hardly being bought more than before, she claimed. "Much more in demand and also cheaper are the compact SUVs," said Hass, which were "quite suitable for urban use" because they don't require much more parking space than vehicles in the compact class.

The car industry is trying to make SUVs palatable to consumers with cheap leasing offers, says mobility researcher Knie. Consumers are taking the bait, also in Berlin. "There are people who like to show off with a big car," Knie added.

Tilmann Heuser of the environmental NGO Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) can see at least one positive trend. "Even though the number of cars in Berlin unfortunately continues to grow, it is increasing at a lower rate than the number of inhabitants," he said. In other words, the number of cars per thousand inhabitants is falling. Data shows that figure declined in Berlin from 328 to 324 between 2014 and 2020. Compared to almost all big cities in the western world, Berlin has relatively few motor vehicles.

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