In 2019, at a bar in Berlin, three friends were having a drink when they started considering a radical idea: What if the middle of their then car-centric city became essentially car free? Over the next few months, they kept talking about the idea and eventually created a group: Volksentscheid Berlin Autofrei, or People’s Decision for Auto-Free Berlin. The goal, they agreed, should be to limit cars within the space inside the Ringbahn, a huge circular train line in the city. The space is larger than Manhattan—and if the plan can succeed, it would be the largest car-free area in any city in the world.
Working with pro bono lawyers, the group crafted a proposed new law spelling out what would change. As in other cities, “car free” doesn’t literally mean that no cars could enter the area, but private car use would dramatically drop. Special permits would be given to emergency vehicles, garbage trucks, taxis, commercial and delivery vehicles (though many deliveries in Berlin already happen on cargo bikes), and residents with limited mobility who depend on cars. Others would be able to use a car, likely through a car-sharing program, up to 12 times a year to run longer errands. But most people, most of the time, would walk, bike, or take public transportation.
“It’s as much about our immediate environment as it is about the environment at large,” Nina Noblé, one of the founders of the campaign, told The Guardian. “It’s about how we all want to live, breathe, and play together. We want people to be able to sleep with their windows open, and children to be able to play in the street again. And grandparents should be able to ride their bicycles safely and have plenty of benches to take a breather on.”
Last April, they started gathering signatures in support of the campaign, ultimately getting 50,000 people to sign. The Berlin Senate, the city’s governing body, is now considering the idea. By February, the city will decide whether to adopt the new law; in 2016, the same process led the city to adopt a different law to improve cycling in Berlin. If the idea is rejected by the city now, the group will begin gathering signatures again. With 175,000 people in support, the proposal would then go on the ballot in 2023, and citizens will decide if it should become law.
It’s already much easier to avoid driving in Berlin than it is even in dense American cities. The trains, for example, run every five minutes. “I don’t even need to know when the next one is coming because I know it’s gonna be soon enough that I don’t care, and that makes a huge difference,” says Nik Kaestner, an American who moved to Berlin in 2020 from San Francisco and now is part of the Autofrei group. (In San Francisco, the BART train runs as infrequently as every 30 minutes at off-peak times.) Most bike lanes are an extension of the sidewalk, away from car traffic, so it’s also easier to bike.
Still, he says, many people who drive in Berlin are likely to say that the alternatives aren’t yet convenient enough. “They’ll say, ‘I’m all in favor of transit—as long as you beef it up, and make it work for me, then I’ll switch as soon as that happens,'” he says. The car-free campaign is based on the assumption that a bigger push is needed because people might not change habits on their own, even as services keep incrementally improving. “If you want to have an environmentally friendly, future-focused city that has cleaner air and more livable spaces for its citizens, and is climate friendly and accessible to all, not just car drivers, then you have to rip the Band-Aid off, so to speak,” he says. “Create those conditions proactively, not eventually.”
In some cases, people may not be convinced until they see changes happen. Berlin, which was largely destroyed in World War II, was rebuilt with wide, car-friendly streets that look more American than a typical European city. As in American cities, it can be hard to imagine how it might look, say, as bike-friendly Amsterdam instead. But even Amsterdam had to take concerted action to transform itself. While the Berlin campaign is trying to convince as many people as possible to support the idea now, “the goal is not to convince everybody this is going to work before you take the first step,” he says. “Probably what you need to do—and Paris has done this really well, and Barcelona—is to show people through examples what kind of a city you could create, and then to build support that allows you to do it in a more holistic way.”
Already, some neighborhoods in Berlin are building “Kiezblocks,” large areas where traffic is limited, and more are planned. But the campaign organizers argue that the reality of climate change means that streets should be redesigned even more quickly. Kaestner says that people in Berlin are more likely to understand that the answer isn’t just a shift to electric cars. “My biggest takeaway from Berlin, and Europe in general over the United States, is just that they have realized that this is not just a revolution toward electric vehicles, but toward the removal of vehicles in general,” he says.