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Berlin mayor rejects new cycling law, despite CO2 emissions

Ben KnightMay 30, 2016

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller has been accused of blocking a new cycling bill that could drastically cut the city's carbon footprint. Urban traffic is considered one of the world's biggest polluters.

Berlin Radweg in Kreuzberg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Berlin is missing its CO2 emissions targets, and the government is rejecting a perfectly good law that could help make up the shortfall, according to the activists behind a petition aimed at making the German capital better for cyclists.

The initiative "Volksentscheid Fahrrad" ("bicycle referendum") is trying to collect enough signatures to force a referendum on a new law that would bring in an array of alterations to the city, including making dangerous crossings safer for cyclists, developing a 350-kilometer (220-mile) network of bike lanes throughout the city, and 200,000 extra parking spaces.

But in a statement released on Monday, the initiative accused Berlin's Mayor Michael Müller of stalling the petition and actively continuing the city's car-centered transport policy, despite being on course to its target of reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent on 1990 levels by 2020. Current prognoses show the city will barely reach a 20-percent cut.

To compound the perceived hypocrisy, the initiative pointed out that Müller will on Wednesday open the "German Habitat Forum," a conference aimed at making cities more "sustainable" and "livable."

"Mr. Müller says he is happy to be the host of the event because in Berlin you can directly observe participatory sustainable development," the initiative said in a statement, adding that "in reality, Berlin is building automobile highways that would be deemed unacceptable from an environmental perspective."

Heinrich Strößenreuther
Strössenreuther thinks Berlin could easily be much bike-friendlierImage: DW/B. Knight

An open goal

The campaign received backing from 60 scientists and researchers on Monday, whose spokesman gave a presentation on the plight of modern cities at a press conference in Berlin. Stephan Rammler, professor of transportation design in Braunschweig, pointed out that global road traffic is expected to increase by several orders of magnitude in the next few decades, and, "No one, no scientist, has any idea how that traffic increase will be dealt with."

He also reiterated the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who told a delegation of mayors in 2012, "Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities." According to Rammler, some 70 percent of the world's CO2 emissions come from cities, and 23 percent of that is generated by road traffic.

"This is the only sector where there is no change in trend," said Benjamin Stephan, another scientist supporting the initiative. "The energy sector in Germany is shifting towards renewables, and you can see similar effects across the globe. And cities are the ultimate area where you can start that trend, because of the density of cities you have shorter routes, and there is the chance to make do without cars."

That's why, Rammler said, he was so surprised that Müller and the Berlin government is refusing to countenance the initiative's suggestion for a cycling law, designed to make cycling easier and safer in the city, which could potentially reduce every single Berliner's carbon footprint by 0.3 tons per year. "It's really a penalty without a goalkeeper," Rammler said.

Not so easy as it looks

The Berlin government, meanwhile, explained that forming a city's infrastructure is a lot more complicated than it looks. "Making maximal demands that can't be implemented doesn't help anyone," said Martin Pallgen, spokesman for the ministry for urban development and the environment. "Sustainable mobility should, in the government's opinion, be guaranteed with preference for public transport, cycling, and pedestrians. But that always has to happen in an integrated plan as part of a total transport policy. Re-structuring streets and public spaces is always a negotiating process of different interests and needs."

Michael Müller 11.12.2014 Berlin
Michael Müller says he is proud to be hosting the German Habitat ForumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

But the campaigners say that the Müller administration has deliberately stalled the cycling initiative, first by delaying the official budget for the new bill, and then inflating the potential cost. According to the city, the proposed law will cost over 2.1 billion euros ($2.3 billion) - the campaigners say you could only arrive at that figure if you make the maximum possible construction costs, and make no allowance for intelligent solutions.

"Whether you think they raised the cost deliberately or not, we think that figure is at least seven times too high," said campaign spokesman Heinrich Strössenreuther.

The example of Copenhagen, whose infrastructure policy is often praised for optimizing the city for cyclists and pedestrians, has shown that the conversion can be much cheaper. "They decided 30 or 40 years ago they want to concentrate on bikes and public transport, and this is paying off now," Stephan told DW. "And here in Berlin you have very wide streets, so you can put in good bike infrastructure without having to block a street completely for cars or anything like that."

And besides, said Rammler, even an expensive cycle path costs just a fraction of an expensive road: "One kilometer of cycle lane costs 200,000 euros, but one kilometre of highway costs six million euros," he said.

So why is Müller being so resistant? According to Strössenreuther, the mayor is hiring a PR agency with public money to "run an ad campaign against the Bicycle Referendum." The government described this as "nonsense." The ministry was merely hiring an agency to "improve communication on the issue of cycling," Pallgen said.

"I think the government didn't consider it as very important for a long time," Strössenreuther said, skeptically. "And now they're being pressured by the population. And they're just defending themselves for now."