Berlin, a city of inhumanity and inefficiency

The capital of Germany was through an odd historical process of wonder, terror and apparent freedom. In 1945 the city was mostly destroyed due to the Allies’ air-bombing and the Red Army invasion. Later on, the famous wall was erected splitting the city in two blocks, somehow representing the blocks that divided the world during Cold War. As Berlin was almost completely torn down by the end of the second world war, the city urban planners, from both sides of the future wall, had the perfect opportunity to design a city for the future generations. Instead of creating a city where its citizens, its people, its inhabitants and their needs were fulfilled, the new-Berlin urban planners just had in mind the satisfaction of automobile usage and economic dependency on fossil fuels, helping therefore the american economy and the petrol industry. The urban planners of the new-Berlin made exactly the same mistakes other cities did, making a jay copy of north-american urban areas, where urban sprawl and automobile dependency are omnipresent and all its adverse consequences for life quality and economy.

The Brandenburg Gate on the beginning of the 20th century
The Brandenburg Gate after the war

Abnormally large avenues are inefficient

One might think large avenues have the principle of providing the inhabitant a notion of free space and large traffic capacity; nevertheless that idea is totally wrong. Large avenues have one single goal, which is to provide the highest corridor capacity as possible but just to automobile traffic flow, disregarding all other means of transport. Because automobile is the common mean of transport with the lowest corridor capacity when compared with many other means of transport like buses, bicycles, trams or trains, the urban planners had to design an avenue tremendously large to allow cars to flow as easy as possible. On a lane with a width of 3.5 meters, on average 2000 people can cross it within one hour using an automobile. But on the same lane within the same time period 14000 cyclists and 22000 tram commuters can traverse it. This gives the corridor capacity for bicycle being seven times higher than for automobile. On the other hand tram has a corridor capacity even bigger, eleven times higher than automobile.
The urban planner of Berlin knew these numbers perfectly, so they created large avenues to avoid something which is common in urban areas: traffic jams. But if they wisely implemented other options, like even more trams and better cycling infrastructures, they would never need such large avenues and a city with such a high urban sprawl. The city would have became more compact, and then more rational in terms of mobility, i.e. with less space allocated to road-way infrastructures and parking spaces and better alternatives to car usage, the average commuter would have to make statistically shorter and smaller journeys to reach its destiny, saving time and money.

Sidewalks are large, though relatively small and inhuman

A newcomer like me that decides to walk frequently, would say Berlin has wide sidewalks and wide pedestrian areas. Though they are mistaken by three major sophisms. Firstly, despite side-walks are wider than many other towns in Europe, they still represent a very small percentage of the avenue width, compared with the space automobiles have allocated for their flow. Secondly, the urban sprawl makes everything farther from our departure point, making a walk to destiny less likely. And thirdly, large avenues provoke literally a barrier on the neighbourhood for people that decide to walk. Berlin has many lengthy and large avenues with few pedestrian crossing points, making what could have been a straight walking a very lengthy journey. It should also be mentioned that it’s common to see pedestrians that need to wait in isles for crossing a large avenue, because the pedestrians green light time in the semaphores is very short.

Cycle paths are dangerous and narrow

One typical urban decision maker policy is to create some cycle paths in some city to tell voters they are doing something to encourage the bicycle usage. The bike network in Berlin, despite being almost ubiquitous, is dangerous and uncomfortable. Firstly the bike paths are really small not respecting the minimum required width of a standardized safe bicycle path. Secondly, if compared with the size of the large avenues, cyclists are nothing but purely ostracised. And thirdly, cyclist need to move side by side with high speed automobiles and in the middle of traffic jams, obliging them to inhale air pollution and being more susceptible to dangerous traffic collisions.

That’s why it’s so common to see cyclists in Berlin cycling above side-walks and walking areas creating dangerous conflicts with pedestrians. It’s not strange then also that despite the municipality constructed many bike parking spots, they are normally empty or with just one or two bicycles. Therefore we don’t have the feeling of bike safety as one can see in other countries like the Netherlands, so every cyclist I saw was young and using a helmet.

Green spaces are cut by urban motor-ways

One of the most pleasant places to walk and to get around is the central main park, the Tiergarten. Tough, the urban planner allowed something which I find appalling; this large and wide park where the Prussian aristocracy used to hunt, is cut in pieces by large urban motor-ways creating an impenetrable barrier on the majority of their length. Walking in this park is not that relaxing as well, as it is full of speedy cyclists creating enormous conflicts with pedestrians, converting a supposedly relaxant walk in the park, a stressful experience. One urban motor-way cut the main park from the Statue of Victory to the Brandenburg Gate. Despite Tiergarten, one does not find in Berlin any other relevant green space. One of the consequences of many automobiles is exactly allocating public space to road-way infrastructures and parking areas, other than for leisure areas. This explains, even apparently paradoxically, that compact urban areas provide its inhabitants more leisure spaces such as parks, terraces or squares.

Even historical places have cars nearby

Even in historical places, like the Brandenburg Gate, where one is supposed to walk around a completely car-free area, we find cars and roads nearby. The Brandenburg Gate, for the historical moments and symbolism it represents, should have much larger and wider pedestrian reserved areas. Instead, we find large avenues almost reaching this monument on both sides of it. Potsdamer Platz it’s an awful place, I have never seen so much traffic, injustice, noise, pollution and irrationality within the same spot at the same time. In one intersection on Potsdamer Platz I counted 40 seconds for the automobiles green light, but just 20 seconds for the pedestrian green light, making two thirds of the green light time allocated to automobiles flow. But on that specific green light time frames, the number of pedestrians that crossed the intersection were the double of the numbers of motorists. One extraordinary exception is Alexander Platz, which is full of people, joy and life, but just if one disregards the large and inhuman avenues around it.

Public transports treat commuters as canned sardines

Many would naturally say Berlin has a very modern and efficient public transport system. I wouldn’t say so because things are not that simple. Firstly, the public transports, mainly the U-Bahn, have tremendously old and small carriages, with very few seated places, obliging the majority of commuters to stand during their journey. Secondly, normally the wagons are fully packed with people, making the common journey very unpleasant and claustrophobic. The stations are unaesthetic and old, seeming they were never modernized.

Despite buses are modern and with two floors, they are by default fully packed with commuters. Adding also that many streets do not have reserved lanes for public transports, or if they have, these lanes are full with normal automobiles. As a consequence, a bus with more than fifty passengers is affected by traffic jam, in-which the majority of its vehicles are automobiles with an average occupancy rate of 1.2 passengers per car.

Regarding public transports the Berlin municipal authorities employed the same mobility principles of other inefficient and unjust cities like London or New York, where commuters must by default go underground; losing time until they reach the platform, take a fully packed wagon to make a claustrophobic journey while they stand, and then come to the over-ground to get to their destiny. The same journey made by a driver, which pollutes and emits noise within the large avenues specially designed for them, is made over-ground and seated in their acclimatized and protected motorized cabin. What distinguishes both cases? The latter has enough money to afford owning and running a car, mainly within a city. What used to be during several thousands of years a basic principle of equality in access to public spaces and mobility infrastructures since the Roman empire, was converted during the 20th century in the financial dichotomy where who has enough money to afford a car, can occupy the streets, while those who don’t have to submit themselves to small pedestrian areas and fully-crowded public transports.

But why?

German people are extremely intelligent and they have a wonderful historical records of great achievements in arts and science. Germans are also known worldwide for being rational, logic and efficient. So why designing a city which is unsafe, noisy, polluted, socially unjust, obliging people to lose many more hours per day in their journeys and being prejudicial to the national economy as people lose more time, and the city becomes largely dependent of fossil fuels?

After deep reflexion and not having sources to attest my theory, I suppose that this irrationality has to do with an unofficial pact, firstly Western Germany and later-on reunited Germany, made with the USA. In reality, the large dependency Europe has on fossil fuels - Europe is around 80% energy dependant, mainly in transports – helps incredibly the american economy. After the 1920’s with Ford and mainly after second world war, USA started to gain largely with the automobile and oil industries. This economic gain was largely increased with the petrodollar system which was implemented around the 1970’s. Basically, every time an European is filling their tank with oil derivative products, they are helping the american economy. Oil also played an important role on the Soviet Union economy, that’s why we can verify the same urban paradigms in Russian towns or in eastern Berlin.

But if one wants to create this large oil and automobile dependency in the world, one must redesign urban areas, urban spaces, streets and public spaces, to prioritize what shall be prioritized according to that economic model of dependency: automobiles that run on oil derivatives. Good examples of cities which did not follow this inhuman and irrational paradigm of mobility were Amsterdam or Copenhagen. It’s in the hands of Europeans to redesign their cities and urban areas again, but without the need of a worldwide war nor any air-bombing; but just with democratic, urban and civil participation on the urban policy which gives us better cities with more humanity, safety and life quality.

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