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  • Roads to nowhere: How Berlin protest can stop the A100 extension

Under the cobblestones

Roads to nowhere: How Berlin protest can stop the A100 extension

In the 50s, Berlin once dreamed of building inner-city motorways. Activists stopped those plans - and they can do it again.

Photo: IMAGO / dts Nachrichtenagentur

In early June, the biggest bike demonstration of the year took place. Roughly 50,000 cyclists joined the ADFC Sternfahrt and pedalled down Berlin’s inner-city freeway, the A100.

Just beyond Südkreuz, we went past a cloverleaf intersection known as the Autobahn-kreuz Schöneberg. It’s ghostly: all those curving off-ramps lead… nowhere. To the south, a mini-motorway, the A103, ends after 3.7 kilometres. In the opposite direction, the road cuts off abruptly. The abandoned tarmac, turning into grassland, is a remnant of a long-ago dream for West Berlin. Starting in the 1950s, there were plans to crisscross the city centre with motorways, which were all brought together in one big Flächennutzungsplan (FNP), or land-use plan, of 1965.

As activists put it: If you sow roads, you will reap traffic.

But 50 years ago, when the plans slowly started becoming a reality and the first houses were being torn down, young people from Schöneberg began organising protests. At first, they only wanted to save a playground – but they ended up changing Berlin’s urban geography.

The Plans

In his plans for the “world capital Germania”, Adolf Hilter’s chief architect Albert Speer envisioned broad boulevards where Aryan Übermenschen in big cars would speed past inferior pedestrians. Even after the Nazis’ defeat, their ideas about car supremacy lived on. In the 1950s, with the city in ruins, West Berlin’s city planners decided to use the chance to rebuild as a ‘autogerechte Stadt’, or ‘car-friendly city’ (a term coined by architect Hans Bernhard Reichow in 1959). Berlin’s FNP envisioned a dense network of motorways: there would be a ring around the city, with four tangential roads – so-called because they would be ‘tangents’ of the inner city – cutting through the centre.

A Westtangente, or the A103, would have started at the abandoned Autobahnkreuz Schöneberg, with a six-lane road running alongside the S-Bahn, then passing through Tiergarten next to the Wall. There would have been another interchange in Moabit, right where Hauptbahnhof currently stands. The Westtangente would have continued into Wedding at the edge of Volkspark Rehberge. A tiny segment of this highway, going south from Schöneberg, opened back in 1968. Another tiny segment in the north, called the A105, goes to Kurt-Schuhmacher-Damm.

An Osttangente, or the A102, would have gone through Volkspark Hasenheide and to the east around Tempelhof airport. It would have continued south through Britzer Garten and all the way out to Berlin’s outer ring, the A10. To the north, it would have cut through Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz and kept heading up to Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. This plan was highly aspirational: in 1965, the city had already been divided by a wall. Only a tiny part of this plan was ever realised: an absurdly high on-ramp connects the A100 to Gradestraße, providing motorway access to the middle of a bunch of small gardens.

A Südtangente, or the A106, would have headed through Schöneberg to Kreuzberg, and eventually connected Treptow and Köpenick. Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg was going to be a big cloverleaf interchange connecting to the A102.

Finally, a Nordtangente, or A107, would have led from Tiergarten to Friedrichshain – but this was almost entirely in East German territory. These were not just abstract plans in a desk drawer. In 1962, the Berliner Abendschau proudly reported that apartment buildings near Rathaus Steglitz had been blown up to make way for a motorway.

The Resistance

Photo: IMAGO / Olaf Wagner

Cheruskerpark is a tiny triangular green space with a little playground next to the old Gasometer in Schöneberg. In the autumn of 1973, a group of young people from the area learned that this playground was going to be moved. They were university students from the Social Democratic youth organisation, the Jusos, and they were looking for a local campaign. They wanted to save the playground, but then started thinking bigger: why not stop the entire Autobahn?

In the 1950s, with the city in ruins, West Berlin’s city planners decided to use the chance to rebuild as a ‘autogerechte Stadt’, or ‘car-friendly city’

This was the beginning of the Bürgerinitiative Westtangente, the citizen’s initiative to stop the Western tangential road. During the oil crisis of 1973, there were mandatory car-free Sundays to save fuel, and people started thinking about alternatives to cars.

One of the leading activists, Norbert Rheinlaender, is still fighting against the car-friendly city today. They began by knocking on doors and informing people that, with the new motorway, far more cars would soon poison their Kiez. When the Autobahnkreuz was under construction, they occupied the green areas that would soon be blocked off by on-ramps and held a picnic. At a funeral march for the trees, they declared: “Tree by tree, our city is dying!” The Bürgerinitiative was officially founded on March 6, 1974.

By 1981, conflicts about the Westtangente caused a government crisis in West Berlin, and the plans were put on ice. The CDU was still campaigning for the idea until at least the late 1990s. In 2021, Berlin’s red-red-green government agreed to dismantle the remaining segment of the A103 as well as the A104, a particularly useless mini-highway in the Southwest. The Bügerinitiative Westtangente remains active today, and its activists went on to launch numerous campaign groups for pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport.

The Remnants

Photo: IMAGO / serienlicht

Only a small part of the FNP was ever realised – ground was broken for the A100 ring in 1956. Today, 67 years later, it is about halfway done. The 16th segment is under construction between Neukölln and Treptow, and those 3.2 kilometres of road are projected to cost over €700 million. Finishing the ring could cost tens of billions of euros and, at this rate, easily take until the 22nd century.

Imagine if legendary cultural sites around Kotti, like SO36, had been torn down to make room for highway off-ramp

Today you can still see traces of these plans all over the city, such as the New Kreuzberg Center (NKZ) at Kottbusser Tor, the yellow behemoth stretching over Adalbertstraße, which opened in 1974. The north side of the building has almost no windows, as it was designed to block the noise and pollution of a highway that would have run down Oranienstraße. The Staatsbibliothek, or Stabi, near Potsdamer Platz is the same: the backside is a blank wall, as this would have faced a motorway. And in the U-Bahn station Amrumer Straße, on the U9, the ceiling on the south side dips down considerably. This is because a motorway was going to cross the canal and pass over this station.

But there are also positive leftovers from this debacle of city planning. For many years, the train yards at Gleisdreieck were abandoned and taken over by trees. This unique urban ecosystem was going to be eaten up by two motorways, the A103 and A106. Instead, it has become one of the city’s quirkiest parks, filled with old train tracks overgrown with trees. Nelly-Sachs-Park next door was similarly created after the old Dennewitzstraße had been demolished to make way for roads. In 1977, the Bürgerinitiative Westtangente organised a multi-pronged bicycle demonstration ending at the Reichstag. This was the beginning of the Sternfahrt, which took place this summer for the 46th time.

The Ongoing Debate

Imagine if legendary cultural sites around Kotti, like SO36, had been torn down to make room for highway off-ramps. No one, it seems, is calling for that today, yet Germany’s federal government, with the support of new Berlin mayor Kai Wegner, is still clinging to one idea of the old FNP: they want to continue building the A100. The 17th segment would extend the highway into Lichtenberg, requiring the demolition of at least nine different clubs in Friedrichshain. While official plans do not yet exist, this would likely cost over €1 billion.

As Tobias Trommer from the A100 Stoppen campaign points out, when people say that this is “transportation policy from the 1950s”, that is no polemical exaggeration. It’s a historical fact. Trommer is “optimistic that the 17th segment won’t be built,” because it’s too expensive and too retrograde. Instead, he says, we need massive investment in public transit.

“I don’t know of anywhere else in Western Europe building anything similar,” says Daniel Knowles, author of the new book Carmaggedon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It. Other European cities are demolishing motorways to make room for cyclists and pedestrians. Some people assume that new roads would reduce traffic jams – today, the average Berlin motorist spends over 70 hours per year stuck in traffic. But as Knowles explains, the opposite ususally happens: “If you speed up traffic, people will drive trips that previously they might have used public transport or walked for, and ultimately, people will relocate to new spots farther away.” Experts call this ‘induced demand’. Or, as activists put it: If you sow roads, you will reap traffic.

Ultimately, we are all paying to subsidise cars, even if many of us in central Berlin don’t use them. While it is increasingly difficult to find a few cubic metres of space to live, we all pay so that cars can take up space for free. Rheinlaender, the veteran activist, has advice for young people who want to save clubs like Wilde Renate and Else now threatened by the resurgence of the old plans: join citizens’ initiatives.