“Anyone who drives a car in Berlin has too much time.” That’s a quote from Jens-Holger Kirchner, Green Party member and Berlin transport secretary in charge of the newly formed Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection.
Speaking to Der Tagesspiegel, Kirchner detailed his new transport policy for Berlin, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t favor cars. While Kirchner said safety will remain the priority for people on all forms of transit in the city, he added that the car is on its way out in Berlin, and his new policies, which are currently being reviewed, will support alternative modes of transit.
Berlin is currently a curious mix or transport options. The car is, as Kirchner says, just about the slowest way to get around, and yet more people (37%) use their cars daily than use public transit (30%), according to a 2015 report from the London School of Economics. And while transit options aren’t cheap, they are fast, pretty reliable, efficient, and pervasive–you really can get anywhere by U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram or bus. Berlin is also a big cycling city. Many people ride, and there is a big network of bike lanes, but these lanes are often invaded by cars, and there are plenty of roads which even hardened cyclists avoid.
Given that, it makes sense that Kirchner’s new policies for the city would favor cycling and other transit options. Bike use is increasing, Kirchner said, not for environmental reasons, but because people know it’s faster to cycle than to drive. And for longer journeys, there’s public transit. When somebody spends 45 minutes every evening circling the block to find a parking space near their home, they start to consider other options, Kirchner told Der Tagesspiegel.
Kirchner is a plain speaker who clearly wants to get things done. He told Der Tagesspiegel that his administration has launched a project to integrate electric bicycles into major delivery services, and he will finally appoint a new head for the VLB, Berlin’s traffic authority (the old leader of the organization was ousted and has yet to be replaced). “I have rarely experienced as much frustration as I have with the VLB,” Kirchner said. But once the authority is back on its feet, Kirchner plans to move forward on existing schemes that had been left idle, like a plan to add bike parking. To give a sense of the disarray Berlin’s transit strategy was in prior to his tenure, Kirchner said that he intends to dust off a traffic-speed study, commissioned a while ago and since “disappeared in a drawer,” which could lead to lowering traffic speeds throughout the city and increasing safety.
Kirchner will also oversee the addition of a new bike-sharing program to Berlin’s transit landscape. Though he admitted that he was surprised that the supermarket chain Lidl and the German railway service were teaming up to launch the program, which will compete with the city-funded Nextbikes, Kirchner added that “two rental bike systems are in any case better than none, and perhaps better than a monopolist. We’ll see if they survive in the long run.”
But Kirchner isn’t blindly anti-car; when Der Tagesspiegel asked him how he gets around, he replied “On foot, by bike, by public transport, by car.” He added that he was disappointed in his service car, which gets only gets around 10 miles (17 kilometers) when running on electric, despite the advertised range of 28 miles (45 kilometers). The manufacturers cheat on range and mileage claims, he said, which makes it difficult for the city to operate an environmentally-friendly fleet. Kirchner was quick to do away with the logic that “green=car hater,” but was clear that his preference for other modes of transit was both about pragmatism and disappointment in the automobile industry.
While Kirchner’s plans are up for review this month, if he is as practical and fearless as he seems in this interview, then these could be a good few years for cyclists, and for anyone who doesn’t want to use a car.