Jerom Theunissen Photography


August 26-31

City in Context

At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin's urban development largely coincided with transport development. Residential and industrial areas developed along rail axes that formed a polycentric star-shaped structure (see right). Until the 1920s, rapid growth of the city called for expanded the public transport network, which was recognized as a precondition for industrialization.  

But by the end of two World Wars, Berlin was split among the victors. The French, English, and American forces controlled the western half of Berlin while Soviet forces controlled the east. This separation lasted from 1948 until 1989, and had significant implications for the city's development. In terms of mobility, most connections between eastern and western parts of the city were cut. Urban and transport planning became politically motivated, as each government wanted to out-gun the other when it came to transport infrastructure.

The two halves of Berlin developed different mobility characteristics. In the West, the historical tram system was decommissioned, and was replaced by significant expansion of the fledgling underground system. A ring road was also introduced to circulate automobile traffic. In the East, Soviet transport planners built radial roads leading into the eastern city center (Alexanderplatz), with the tram as a backbone for public transport and very low motorization rates.

A divided Berlin led to the interruption of "regular" urban development for 40 years. When the city was united again after the fall of the Berlin Wall, transport planners were faced with significant challenges to integrate the east with the west. Several conflicting infrastructures pursued during the era of the Wall effect Berlin to this day. In the 1990s, reunification of Berlin (and indeed, Germany) concerned itself with catching up to European urban and transport trends. Population losses and motorization increases occurred. With the wall gone, suburbanization is seen for the first time in East and West of Berlin (albeit to a lesser extent than other European cities). 

The turn of the 21st century leads to transformation of trends. Today, the city comprises a large number of urban districts and boroughs that are very diverse in character. It has excellent infrastructure (road, rail and inland waterways) for both passenger and urban freight transport. The public transport system serves around 4.4 million inhabitants of Berlin and the surrounding region. The majority of the inner-city public transport system is operated by Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG), supplemented by 15 S-bahn lines and several commuter lines connecting the city of Berlin with the neighboring region, organized by the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg. Due to its excellent public transport network, Berlin has a low car density relative to its peer cities, with 377 cars per 1,000 inhabitants (compared to 570/1000 in Germany).

This is not to say there are not problems. The city faces considerable emissions of particulate matter and NO2, noise pollution, and the city is facing up to the challenges of new mobility paradigms such as car and ride sharing, the rise of urban cycling, greater sustainability and new means of payment. The mobility system must also cope with a rapidly growing capital city that is a center for the innovation economy, a regional hub across central Europe, and a magnet for widespread investment and visitor growth (Berlin tops the world as the city with the fastest increasing property prices). 

Berlin is building for growth in the coming decades by steadily improving its transport infrastructure. The system is already very efficient and comprehensive, and vast amounts of investment have already and continue to be put in place to improve level of service. I wanted to visit the city to see these developments in person and learn of Berlin's unique urban development.

Bottom-Up Calls to Action - Berlin's Mobility Law

One of the hallmarks of Berlin's culture as a city is the do-it-yourself attitude. In terms of city planning, this attitude lends itself well to bottom-up development, with initiatives coming from citizens. Citizen participation in planning decisions is mandated by law, stipulating that owners, leaseholders, tenants, and any other affected persons have a right of participation in any and all development measures. What's more, Germany and local governments have a culture of direct democracy, with citizens being able to bring citizen's proposals to the government with 20,000 signatures and a quorum of 25% of voters voting on the referendum.  In Berlin, this has been used in referendums concerning topics including schooling, urban development projects, non-smoking areas, and mobility.

The story of Berlin's latest people's initiative began in November 2015, when more than thirty citizens participated in a workshop to find the ten most important objectives to improve cycling conditions in Berlin. The goals include the transformation of 325 km of roads into bicycle streets, safe bicycle infrastructure on every main road, a safer redesign of 75 intersections per year, quick maintenance and fixes along bike lanes, 200,000 bike parking spots, fifty stretches with a green wave for bikes, 100 km of bicycle highways, police on bikes that ensure the bikeability, more bicycle planning staff in council positions and communications campaign that prepare Berlin to become a bicycle friendly city. These objectives came from citizens organized under the name Volksentscheid Fahrrad, who were spurred by the inability of the city's Senate to spend the money allocated to it for cycling infrastructure. This €4.6 million in annual spending amounts to a measly €3.80 per person. This figure is astonishingly low in considering that in Copenhagen, the number is €25. In Oslo, it’s as high as €35. Other cities I have visited, like Paris, London and Madrid, spend more than €12 per person.  

After the publishing of the objectives, the group informed the media, kick starting the debate about cycling in Berlin. Carrying on the momentum, Germany’s first “Gesetzes-Hackathon” (legislation hackathon) took place in January 2016. Thirty lawyers and cycling experts worked through a 24-hour agenda and completed a first draft of the Berlin Bicycling Bill, called the RadG . Later drafts included suggestions and input from insiders in the Transport Senate and from two online public input sessions. In April 2016, the Volksentscheid Fahrrad presented Berlin’s and Germany’s first draft cycling law.  By June 2016, the initiative collected signatures throughout the city for the first stage of the process and filed it with the Senate Department. A total of 105,425 signatures were collected within a month (which is five times the required 20,000 signatures)! Thanks to the political pressure and activism, urban cycling became a key issue during the 2016 election campaigns. This led political powers to incorporate terms of the cycling referendum in their political platforms. 

The plan of the successful initiative, together with the progressive green and liberal coalition in Berlin's Senate, led to the implementation of a holistic "mobility mandate" by Spring 2017. Today, this mandate is the most progressive mobility concept in all of Germany, featuring promising goals and objectives. By 2025, the share of cycling in all covered routes within the urban environmental zone should increase from the current 13% to 30%. In the entire state of Berlin, the proportion is expected to rise to 20%. In addition, Berlin commits itself to "Vision Zero", aiming to reduce the number of road deaths to zero. After some delays and rounds of negotiations, the final draft of the first nationwide mobility law in the Berlin Senate was then put to a vote on June 28, 2018, where the Berlin Mobility Act was enacted by the Berlin House of Representatives. 

Beginning in 2018, this mobility mandate will be financed with an investment of €51 million, or €15 per person per year, almost five times higher than the current annual budget per person on bicycle infrastructure. At this level of financial support, Berlin can rival other European cities like Paris or Madrid, and build upon the existing widespread acceptance and appreciation of the bicycle, with a high bicycle modal share of 18%.

Now, the time has come to turn talk into walk (or bike in this case). Members of the Volksentscheid Fahrrad are hesitant with their enthusiasm for the new mobility mandate, because it does not present a clear time plan and obligations for implementation, nor is the quality and design of infrastructure defined. What's more, these goals are similar to those made by the city's bicycle strategy back in 2012. However, with the goals in the mobility mandate now legally binding, the likelihood of achieving them is greatly improved. The missing link, it seems, is for the city to provide reliable and consistent infrastructure (not the zig-zag lane seen in some Berlin neighborhoods below) throughout the city that makes urban cycling attractive and accessible to all.

Study in Berlin Shows When from car to public transport can work

A research project carried out in Berlin by environmental psychologist Sebastian Bamberg from the FH Bielefeld was dedicated to the topic of studying the likelihood of changing mobility behavior when their life circumstances change, and why it is difficult for people to switch modes. 

To increase the likelihood of a behavioral change, the project made use of the points of time when the usual habits and social orientations are interrupted. It looked at the right points in life to initiate a behavioral change and identified these as the ones that come along with major changes in life: moving to a new flat or city, changing job, starting a family or retiring. The study contacted people whose previous patterns of mobility no longer worked for their new situation. The study offered one year of free public transport to these people alongside a compact city map with relevant directions to popular destinations in the city. The control group, who did not experience a change in life events, was also offered a free public transport card. Results showed that people that had recently faced a major change more often changed their mobility behavior while the reference group hardly changed theirs at all.

The same mechanism applies to changes in transport infrastructure, such as installing new cycling paths or public transport connections and restricting conditions for taking the car. “Many people do not like to hear that, but on the one hand they have to make car use less attractive. That's a requirement for people to have an incentive to think about alternatives," Bamberg states. The study is an important insight into the human factors at play behind urban transport in Berlin and across the developed world.

The Story of Berlin's U-Bahn Stations

More than 500 million passengers pass through the 173 stations of Berlin's U-Bahn metro each year. Opened in 1902, it is the most extensive underground system in Germany. When connections were cut along the East-West city border in the 1960s, many stations ended up visually reflecting the areas they served, with no two stations looking alike. The network of stations also rank among the city’s most impressive architectural sites, spanning the styles of Art Nouveau, Modernism (and Postmodernism). The stations also encapsulate a tumultuous century for Berlin. As such, I wanted to explore the stations' unique architecture and design for myself. 

On the whole, I found that each station had a unique story and design that made each one worth visiting! The most striking aspect was that stations in the former East had a more functional and simpler appearance, while wealthier areas in the West have gone to greater lengths designing and preserving existing stations.

This article discusses the varying typography used at different metro stations in Berlin.

This article discusses the old "ghost stations" that were shuttered after the Berlin Wall was erected.

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