Around the corner from my apartment in Berlin, a shrine hugs a corner of the busy Invalidenstrasse. Teddy bears and poems and candles and withered flowers mark the place where four people were killed on Sept. 6, including a three-year-old and his grandmother, when a Porsche SUV jumped the curb and ran into the crowd on the sidewalk.
It’s a street filled with shops and cafés, where trams and cars and pedestrians and cyclists vie for any chance to get ahead. It’s also become a site of contention in a country that loves and manufactures some of the world’s most famous cars, but also is hurtling toward a future that may be car-free. Or at least less car-full.
In the days after the tragedy, there were vigils held on Invalidenstrasse and at a nearby church. Politicians in the neighbourhood of Mitte called for a ban on SUVs in the city centre (the SUV’s driver experienced an epileptic seizure prior to hitting the pedestrians, Germany media has reported.)
Something remarkable happened, at least from my perspective as a Torontonian who’s used to seeing pedestrian deaths tick upward while the city avoids the necessary improvements to road infrastructure and policing to make things safer for everyone who shares the road. In Berlin, politicians agreed to immediate improvements: The speed limit would be reduced to 30 km/hr on Invalidenstrasse, and protected bike lines would be installed. This was largely thanks to a local father of three named Julian Kopmann, who started a petition in the wake of the accident, calling for safety improvements to counter what he called “the constant dangers of road traffic.”
The petition now has more than 15,000 signatures, and has gone far to making the neighbourhood safer. But the thing that strikes me most about it is a sentence at the end, which says that it “is not directed at driving in general, drivers of large cars in particular, or against any other group of road users!”
To me, that reveals a German conundrum: Love the car, live by the car, but also die by the car. But it’s not uniquely German – the rest of the world, too, is struggling with how to make its cities more hospitable and its air cleaner while honouring citizens’ rights to enjoy their little living rooms on wheels. Perhaps Canada can learn something from watching the convulsions of a country where the national pastime, as Kraftwerk so memorably chanted, is “fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn."
For the time being, you can still drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn at whatever speed you like. The Green Party’s recent attempts to put a cap of 130 km/hr on Germany’s famously laissez-faire highways was thoroughly quashed in the Bundestag, the federal parliament. Here, too, two countries met, past and present. “The principle of freedom has proven itself,” said the conservative Transport Minister, Andreas Scheuer. The Green Party’s Cem Ozdemir had a different perspective: “You’re defending a transport policy from the day before yesterday.”
If you look at the faces of the protesters who tried to blockade Frankfurt’s huge auto fair in September, they all look very young. There were thousands of people on the streets rallying against the world’s largest car show, standing next to SUVs bearing “Klimakiller” licence plates, and carrying papier-mâché replicas of the German Chancellor’s head.
Inside the car show, the actual Chancellor was talking about the “Herculean task” that Germany’s government and car manufacturers face if Europe’s largest economy wants to meet its 2040 climate targets. Angela Merkel would like a million electric vehicles on the road in the next three years, but she runs a country that was rocked by protests earlier this year when meagre emissions controls for older diesel cars were brought in. She also runs a country teetering on the brink of recession, where car production was “greatly reduced” in the past two months, as the Bundesbank just reported. Still dealing with the fallout from the 2015 “Dieselgate” emissions scandal, facing slumping demand and competition from China, Germany’s famous car industry, in the words of Handelsblatt newspaper, is facing “its biggest crisis in decades.”
Feel free to pick your favourite car-related metaphor – there’s a bumpy patch approaching, or a fork in the road. Either way, the path ahead is not filled with personal vehicles powered by fossil fuels and driven by carbon-based life forms. This, of course, is not so much a political struggle as a cultural one. Germans, like Canadians, are clinging desperately to their cars, and everything those cars represent. And, like Canadians, they love their polluting, dangerous, expensive, city-clogging SUVs. At the same time, they’re increasingly worried about their contributions to a warming planet.
Or at least most of them are. The tension between yesterday and tomorrow is evident in the popularity of a new German Facebook group called Fridays for Hubraum (or Fridays for Horsepower), a car fans’ collective that set itself up in opposition to the climate striking students’ group Fridays for Future. Fridays for Hubraum has more than 500,000 members only a month after being founded by a mechanic who was tired of being preached at by environmentalists. Its intention, as Der Spiegel noted, is to "counter the rampant climate mania with some fun.” This may be the last year that anyone equates fun with Facebook, so enjoy it while it lasts.
If Germany can beat the tyranny of the car, any country can. It is on its way – there are planned rebates for zero-emission cars, a national network of charging stations, increased investment in trains and in public transit. That’s on the grand scale. But you can find changes on a small, human, crucially important scale, too, on Invalidenstrasse, where it took tragedy to help a city see a better way forward.
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