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August 23, 2002.

Other Voices:

Transport in Berlin, Germany

The following is the text of a lecture given at the July 30, 2002 Auto-Free NY meeting by Michael Cramer, the transport policy spokesman of the Green parliamentary party in the city-state parliament of Berlin, Germany.

The division of tasks between scientific transport studies and practical transport policies in the metropolitan areas of industrialized countries is generally on the following principle: the scientific community has the know-how, whereas the political establishment puts the know-not-how into practice.

After the reunification of Berlin there was a hope that this discrepancy could be overcome. The chances were good because the city of Berlin offers an infrastructure that is excellently suitable. And the Senate coalition of the CDU and SPD, which had formed at the beginning of 1991, promised to avoid the mistakes made by other metropolitan areas. The urban railway, subway and tram networks were to be repaired, extended and linked, and the two halves of the city that had been divided for decades were to be connected again. New residential areas were to be built with rail transport links, and old residential areas were also to be provided with rail transport connections.

The Senate wanted to change the modal split in the inner city from the current ratio of 60:40 for individual motorized transport to a ratio of 80:20 for local public transport. That means that car transport was to be reduced by two thirds and the number of bus and rail passengers was to be doubled. The Senate also wanted to banish through-traffic from the inner city. This was to be achieved by introducing car parking charges throughout the area within the urban circle line and extending the bus lane system to 350 kilometers. Buses and trams were to be given priority at traffic lights, car-sharing projects were to be supported.

As you see, ladies and gentlemen, it looked as if Berlin had learned the historic lesson that "He who sows roads reaps traffic", as the former Mayor of Munich, Hans-Jochen Vogel, phrased it as early as 1972. The intentions also seemed to affirm the view expressed by the former president of the Traffic Committee of New York, S. H. Bingham, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1952. Exact 50 years ago he described the transport policy task of cities as follows:

"The existence of our cities is under threat, traffic is no longer able to move freely in the streets. Instead of thinking about moving vehicles in our streets, we should seek to transport as many people through the streets as possible."

The policy of shifting from individual motorized transport to local public transport is also today still right because the problems arising from the concentration on automobile transport in past years are becoming more and more acute. These problems take many forms and can be described as follows:

  • Instead of the original dream of universal mobility, city planning for automobile transport has in many places led to immobility. "You are not caught in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam." This symbolizes the insight that the transport problems in metropolitan areas can only be solved by reducing automobile transport.
  • The space taken up by the transport infrastructure has taken on enormous dimensions. In Berlin, it represents about 40% of the urban area. As a result, the cities are increasingly eating their way into the surrounding countryside, which creates even more traffic and multiplies the problems.
  • The number of people killed and injured in road accidents is immense. Every year there are about 10,000 traffic victims in Germany. More children are killed and injured by automobile transport than by dangerous illnesses.
  • Noise and pollutant emissions are a burden for many. It has been proved that the risk of a heart attack greatly increases as a result of noise emission. In Berlin, some 80% of the streets wihin the circle line are louder than acceptable for our health.
  • The costs of automobile traffic are immense if we include the consequential costs such as invalidity, hospital and work absenteeism costs, reduced rent, facade damage, noise insulation measures and damage to cultural monuments. Every automobile in Germany is subsidized with 4,000 dollars per year from tax. And this calculation does not include global effects such as the climate disaster and the gap in the ozone layer.
  • Our way of life, and especially automobile transport, wastes too much energy. The generations since the Second World War have used up as much energy as the whole of humanity before that time. A mere 18% of the world population consume 80% of all raw materials.
  • The way of life in the metropolitan areas of industrial countries is diametrically opposed to the categorical imperative formulated by Immanuel Kant in his "Critique of practical reason": "Act in such a way that at any time the maxim of your will could equally be applied as a principle of general law."
  • A change is urgently necessary, a turnabout in transport policy is long overdue!

The fundamental philosophy which underlies Berlin's transport policy - the absolute priority of public transport - is a fitting response to these problems. But the really interesting question is whether this philosophy is actually applied in reality. Instead of approving office and business buildings around the urban circle line, they have been concentrated in the city. The palatial office buildings on Potsdamer Platz, Leipziger Platz and Friedrichstrasse can be mentioned as examples. In several storeys of underground car parks, over 10.000 parking spaces have already been built in the center, and a thousand more are planned. When they have been completed they will attract automobile traffic like light attracts moths.

In placing the emphasis on long-distance transport, the fact was ignored that more than 90% of railway journeys in Germany are shorter than 50 kilometers. Investments in this segment would be most effective from a transport policy point of view. But funds were taken from local transport and allocated to long-distance transport. Thus, the resumption of service on the traditional urban railway circle is taking three years longer in the 21th century than it took to build the line 125 years ago.

When the German government demanded that no through traffic should be allowed in the government district, the Senate decided not to reduce traffic in the entire area within the "small dog's head", but to reduce it only in the government district. In order to handle the traffic problems, it was decided that the previously planned through road would be taken underground at a cost of around 500 milion dollars. By this means, automobile traffic is actually drawn into the inner city area which the Senate wanted to avoid. And the road tunnel swallows the necessary funds that are now not available for the extension of the tram network.

But Berlin is actually ideally equipped for future-oriented transport policies. Berlin has a decentralized urban structure which consists of 23 metropolitan districts, each of which has its own independent center. This enables a significant amount of traffic to be avoided. Berlin still has the so-called Berlin mixture - i.e. work, leisure and dwelling in the same local area is still intact in many parts of the city, even in the historic city center. Many trips can still be made on foot or by bike, and these means of transport are still actually used.

Berlin has more than 500 kilometers of urban railway and subway routes, and its tram network of 180 kilometers is the largest in Germany. All of this explains why every second household in Berlin does not possess an automobile. In Munich or Frankfurt this applies to only 30%. As you see, the starting position is still good. All Berlin needs to do is to make use of the structural elements which have proved positive in other cities and to cast them into practical policies. I will now summarize my criticism and my demands in ten points:

1. Only attractive public transport can cover its costs:
When public transport was dominant in Berlin before the Second World War, the Berlin transport company BVG operated at a profit. That was still true between 1945 and 1948 even though the war damage had to be repaired. Future-oriented transport policy therefore needs to concentrate first and foremost on increasing the number of passengers. By contrast with this experience, however, the number of passengers has been reduced by 20% over the last seven years because the public transport in Berlin has doubled its fares - now more than two dollars - while at the same time the services offered have become worse because of the greater time intervals, time limitations etc. Instead of this policy, it is in fact necessary to reduce the fares and to introduce attractive intervals and an all-night service like in New York, where the subway trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All that is economically viable, too. Traffic companies in other regions have been able to improve their economic performance by reducing fares and extending the service offered.

2. Priority for bus and tram on the existing roads, the way they are:
The bus and tram must be given priority on the existing roads. The synchronized traffic lights for automobiles must be subordinated to synchronized traffic lights for the bus and tram. In Berlin, the tram spends 20% of its traveling time waiting at red lights. If the traffic lights were synchronized for the tram in Berlin, as they already are in Zürich and Cologne, the operating costs could be reduced by 20% for a better level of service. Late but not too late the senate works on this. The same also applies to buses, which today have their own lanes on a route length of only 100 kilometers, and only at certain times. It is necessary to create a bus lane network of 400 kilometers. That is not only attractive for the passengers because they would then reach their destinations sooner, it is also financially attractive - the public transport company estimates the annual savings at 250,000 dollars per kilometer of bus lanes. It also benefits bicycles and taxis, which are entitled to use the bus lanes.

3. Cycling must be promoted:
Only 10% of Berlin's citizens travel by bike. German towns which encourage cycling such as Erlangen, Münster and Freiburg reach 25%, Groningen in the Netherlands even reaches 50%. The decentral urban structure in Berlin without any major uphill stretches is ideal for cycling. Much could be achieved here with a low level of investment. Even the Senate wants to increase the cycling ratio to 25%. In Berlin 90% of all the houses are situated only five minutes by bike to the next urban railway or underground station. In the last two years, there exists a separate title for cycling-investments in the budget. The sum twice was doubled on to 5 Million Dollars now and there are plans to construct four touristic cycle-routes. The most famous is the "Berlin wall cycle path". This tour follows the former wall and is a tour through history, culture and politics of Berlin at a length of 160 kilometers. Since two weeks it is allowed to take the bicycle with you in the urban railway, in the subway and even in the tram at any time. I am sorry that in Berlin you have to pay for it - but bike & ride is now possible.

4. Lower priority for motor traffic:
Berlin has a very extensive road network, which means that apart from a few exceptions to create access to new residential and industrial areas, there should be no further building of new roads. Automobile transport must be reduced, and one of the methods must be to introduce car parking charges equivalent to the public transport fares. The public transport ticket in Berlin costs more than two dollars, but parking is largely free of charge - even at Potsdamer Platz. In just a few areas, half a dollar or so must be paid for half an hour of parking. Therefore it is necessary to increase the parking areas and the price.

5. Repair of the urban structure before new construction and extension:
As a matter of course, the repair of the damage caused by the building of the Berlin Wall must be regarded as the major goal. Apart from one single exception, the tram routes all end in East-Berlin, where the wall used to be. In eight places it is urgently necessary that the tram routes should be extended at least as far as the nearest subway or urban railway station in West-Berlin to ensure that the two halves of the city do not remain divided.

6. Connection of residential areas and transport junctions to the tram network:
The wrong decisions arising from the planning of a city suitable for automobiles, i.e. the decision to build large residential areas without a rail connection, must be corrected. Similarly, the major transport junctions such as the Ostbahnhof station and Zoo station must be linked to the tram network as quickly as possible. It is a terrible thing that, in spite of all good intentions, a residential area for 15,000 people has been built in the north-east of Berlin without creating the necessary public transport infrastructure.

7. Achieving the greatest efficiency with the least effort:
Future-oriented transport policy can only be directed towards what is financially feasible, not what is merely desirable. Therefore an underground tunnel system for automobiles, which is currently under discussion in Paris or in construction in Boston is totally unreasonable. Another unreasonable proposition in any case for Berlin is an underground system for further public transport routes - although this is actually planned in the development plan for Berlin. It is unreasonable - at least in the next 15 years and before the existing system is not completely repaired - because it costs too much and takes too long.

8. 100 kilometers of tram routes instead of 5 kilometers of subway:
If we want to achieve a turnabout in transport policy in the foreseeable future, we must therefore change direction and switch the lights to green for a renaissance of the tram system like in Paris or Los Angeles. The tram is an extremely flexible means of transport which can travel at walking speed through pedestrian areas, and which is almost as fast as the subway and urban railway in outlying districts. Because of the shorter distance between the stops and the shorter walks to and from platforms, the traveling time from door to door is rarely longer than with the subway or urban railway. That may be different for long distances, but within the city, the most trips are less than 5 kilometers. The investment costs for the tram, at 10 million dollars per kilometer, are only one twentieth of the subway construction costs, which have risen to 200 million dollars per kilometer in Berlin. Tram operating costs are only half the cost level for subway routes and that is a saving which applies every year. The capacity of the tram is 20.000 persons per hour. This is slightly below that of the subway and urban railway. But it is twenty times the capacity of a lane of automobile traffic, which can handle just 800 automobiles per hour. With an average of 1.1 persons per automobile, that represents only 900 persons per hour. The job argument is also important in a city where unemployment almost reaches the 20% mark. The construction of a tram line creates four times as many jobs - and jobs from within the region - compared with the construction of subway lines. Subway lines need more capital, more machinery but little manpower.

9. The same criteria for goods transport:
What applies to passenger transport is also fundamentally true for goods transport. Goods must also be mainly transported decentrally by rail. To achieve this, it is necessary to reactivate the 50 local goods stations and over 200 sidings. At the fine distribution level within the city, low-noise and low-pollution city trucks would take over the goods.

10. We need an ecological tax reform:
This whole program must be integrated into a complete overhaul of the conventional tax system which makes raw materials available at dumping prices due to high subsidies - and makes labor expensive. As long as automobile transport avoids the truth about the costs, as long as the deficits are made up by tax subsidies - bus and rail transport will not have a real chance. The costs of automobile traffic are immense if we include the consequential costs such as invalidity, hospital and work absenteeism costs, reduced rent, damage to facade of cultural monuments, and so on. Every automobile in Germany is subsidized with 3,000 dollars per year from tax. And this calculation does not include global effects such as climate disaster and the gap in the ozone layer.

In Germany - and not only in Germany - there is a discussion about the price for gas and the ecological tax-reform, which is a very important decision of the red-green coalition [represented by ] Schröder/Fischer, which [has been] in power since 1998. In the consequence of this ecological tax-reform, low consumption engines would compensate the extra costs. As a result, the consum[ption] of oil [declined] last year by 4 percent.

In closing I would state the following:
Berlin has all chances to realize a modal split in the city center to a ratio of 80:20 in favour of public transport. Even now Berlin is actually ideally equipped for future-oriented transport policies:

  • An urban structure that is decentral and favorable for cycling
  • The Berlin mixture of work, leisure and dwellings - the opposite of the Charta of Athens - is still intact even in the inner city
  • 500 kilometers of urban railway and subway lines
  • 180 kilometers of tram lines
  • Every other household has no car.

As you see, ladies and gentlemen, the starting position is still good. What I stand for is that - not only in Berlin - the know-how of scientific studies and the statements in political pledges are indeed turned into transport policies.

--Michael Cramer, 3 July 2002

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