It's a sunny yet chilly weekday afternoon in November, and the northern half of Berlin's Friedrichstrasse boulevard is bustling with shoppers and workers on their lunch breaks.
The 3-kilometer-long (1.8-mile) road running north to south through Berlin's so-called government district is known for its chic stores, upscale hotels and restaurants. It's a tourist magnet, too, passing by the city's famous Cold War-era Checkpoint Charlie border crossing and other historical attractions. What better place to prioritize cyclists and pedestrians, Berlin authorities thought in August 2020, subsequently closing off a short stretch of Friedrichstrasse to automobiles.
Regine Günther, Berlin's traffic commissioner at the time, banished cars from a 500-meter (1,640-foot) section of the shopping boulevard, had makeshift cycle lanes marked out in the middle of the road and got city workers to set up benches and plant pots along the curbs.
The initial plan was to keep the section closed to cars until October 2021 as part of an urban traffic "experiment." When authorities extended the restrictions for another year to "preserve the positive aspects of the experiment," however, local wine dealer Anja Schröder took legal action to have the road reopened to cars — and won. She said the closure was bad for businesses.
What went wrong?
The U-turn has left many scratching their heads, particularly given the precarious state of Germany's climate goals. The federal government has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emission by at least 65% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. But an expert committee convened by the government warned earlier this month that Germany is in serious danger of not meeting its 2030 targets.
Examples of successful car-free shopping zones in other German and European cities — such as Hamburg's Spitalerstrasse pedestrian zone or Bordeaux's Rue Sainte-Catherine shopping street — have also shown that pedestrianized streets can benefit local businesses.
"Experience shows that when streets are pedestrianized, revenue increases," Wulf-Holger Arndt of Berlin's Technical University told DW. The urban researcher said Berlin has been far too timid and slow in pushing automobiles out of the city center, blaming authorities for their "car-centric worldview."
While he welcomed the partial and in his view "overdue" closure of Friedrichstrasse to cars, he also said it was poorly implemented — a view that's echoed by many who work or live on or near Friedrichstrasse.
"Some 20 shops in the area closed since the street was closed to cars," said Conrad Rausch of DIE MITTE, an organization that represents local residents and businesses. He does, however, admit that previous coronavirus-related restrictions also adversely impacted businesses. A clear causality is therefore difficult to establish.
Benzi, a 22-year-old student from Bulgaria, is waiting at the traffic lights near the top end of the closed off stretch of Friedrichstrasse. He said he would have preferred to see it remain a pedestrian zone. "But I just think it was implemented a little offhandedly," he said. "I don't really like the fact that they have given the majority of space to cyclists. There could have been more benches, more trees."
Still, he very much supports the idea of pedestrianized shopping streets, citing the one in his hometown of Plovdiv as a positive example.
David Modjarad, 51, is sitting further along the car-free stretch of Friedrichstrasse enjoying a coffee, taking in the cyclists whizzing past, the eerily quiet Russian cultural center and uninviting, makeshift benches on the opposite side of the road. Modjarad works and lives nearby.
"This [section of Friedrichstrasse] is awful, and I'm practically looking forward to the return of cars," said Modjarad. He, too, said this urban space should have been designed with much greater attention to detail, more trees and a different cycle path.
The partial closure of Friedrichstrasse to cars was a "missed opportunity," Ragnhild Sorensen of Changing Cities told DW. The organization wants to redesign German cities in the interest of pedestrians and cyclists. She said while Berlin invested too little money and effort into the project, allowing cars back is "absurd in light of the climate crisis."
What could Berlin have done differently?
One possible inspiration for Berlin could have been Vienna's Mariahilfer Strasse. For decades, the popular shopping street in Austria's capital saw heavy car traffic and even more frequent traffic jams. Then, in August 2015, Mariahilfer Strasse was pedestrianized. Yet crucially, and unlike in Berlin, locals were invited to have their say and vote on the planned measure, with 53.2% of participants ultimately backing the transformation. While not everyone welcomed the change initially, over time many businesses and locals warmed to the new situation.
"It has been such a success that shopkeepers from other streets are now approaching Vienna city council, saying they want their roads closed off to cars, too," said Arndt of Berlin's Technical University.
Not everyone's keen on such change. Edgar Terlinden, a political spokesperson for the Berlin branch of Germany's motoring association ADAC, opposes measures aimed at curbing car traffic along Berlin's Friedrichstrasse or elsewhere in the city. Berlin's existing urban structure should not be radically altered, he argues.
But examples like Vienna's Mariahilfer Strasse show that urban change can be successful, if properly planned. This success also depends on how we talk about and envision such change, said Sorensen.
"It's a major problem that urban change is always framed as something negative," she said. "We need to tell people how things could be, painting a picture of what it could look like — if that doesn't happen, there will be no change in mentality."
Edited by: Kate Brady