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"We can build a city for humans": Meet the team behind Volksentscheid Berlin autofrei
Sammlerinnen 1 BastianBeck

Tell us about yourself and how you became involved with Volksentscheid Berlin autofrei.

By profession, I'm an urbanist: I analyze cities and try to make them more livable for everyone. The Volksentscheid Berlin autofrei is trying to do the same thing by creating more space for community life, making streets safer, reducing air and noise pollution, and shifting the focus to public mobility. After seeing a handful of these potential benefits, I could no longer stand on the sidelines, so I joined the team. 

What is Berlin autofrei? What’s the goal and mission?

Berlin Autofrei is a citizens' initiative, which aims to reduce the amount of cars in Berlin in order to create a safer city with more space for everyone. Politicians are not taking the necessary measures to achieve this, therefore we have decided to take it in our hands and use a direct democratic tool, a Volksentscheid (a referendum).
User groups who continue to depend on motor vehicles will receive a respective special use permit. To those user groups belong persons with reduced mobility, public and emergency services (e.g. ambulance service) as well as commercial and delivery traffic. If the majority of Berliners votes for this law, the law enters into force after a 4-year transition period.

What are some myths or assumptions people make about the car-free initiative that you think are unfair/exaggerated?

Many believe that a car-free Berlin would hurt the local economy, which is not true at all. Many studies on this topic show that business owners tend to overestimate the importance of car drivers. A recent research from Neukölln, for example, showed that only 6.6% of customers come by car and more than half live within a one kilometre radius (Dirk von Schneidemesser, Jody Betzien, 2021).
For cafés, our law is even more beneficial: there will be more space for tables and it will be more pleasant to be outside when the roar of engines is replaced by birdsong and children's laughter.

Which cities are models for the livable city we want to create?

Barcelona, Ljubljana, Paris and Amsterdam have made significant steps towards car-free mobility and livable cities. However, in our law proposal, we also paid attention to some counterexamples. These include London's congestion charge, which mainly hits the lower-income population: the less you earn, the harder it is to pay the fee (around 18 EUR/day). The same problem is posed by the expensive parking fees.
We don't think this is fair, so we propose to rather take into account people's need for a car. As I have mentioned before, in our law, user groups who still need a car can continue using it without restrictions.

How can being car-free make Berlin better?

Berliners will breathe fresher air, will be able to sleep with an open window, and will no longer stand in traffic jams. The transportation will be much safer since the number of car accidents will drastically decline. And most importantly: We can build a city for humans instead of cars. An incredible amount of space is consumed by parking cars. We can redistribute this space and thereby create a more liveable city for all of us.

What are some examples of how space could be used if we had fewer cars in Berlin and in other German cities?

There are so many options. Community spaces, playgrounds, flower beds and trees, sport grounds,, benches, restaurant tables, bike parking… everything that is lacking now! The list is endless and limited only by our imagination. In the end we only want return free spaces to the residents and invite them to co-design them according to their needs and wishes. 

How can people get involved with your organization?

There are three different ways to contribute:
  1. Join an AG (Arbeitsgruppe: working group). There we are planning the strategy, preparing social media posts, connecting with other initiatives and planning demonstrations. There are plenty of possibilities to engage, so you will definitely find something that suits you. AGs meet weekly and you can find the list of them here.
  2. Join a local team. If you want to meet like-minded neighbors and help us already now  to spread the news about our Volksentscheid in your district, then this option is for you. Just leave your contact in this form
  3. If you have little time, you can support us with a donation or on social media.  

We have data that show people want to cycle but are apprehensive because of the perceived cost of repairs, theft, or concerns about showing up sweaty. What do you think of those concerns?

In Berlin, cycling is the cheapest mode of transport after walking. If someone continues to drive a car because cycling is expensive, then they should take a close look at their finances. Fuel, parking, insurance, taxes, inspection, repair, loans - these are just the superficial costs. Add to that the health problems caused by air pollution and car accidents, not to mention the incomparable spend on car infrastructure - would you still say that cycling is expensive? However, we do of course agree that bike infrastructure (including parking) needs to become more comfortable. 

What else would you like to tell our readers about how to create more sustainable, active and connected communities in Berlin and beyond?

Here are some actions you can take:
  1. Try to support your local businesses - they will save you time and make your neighborhood more vibrant.
  2. Get involved in a local community and discuss what's missing in your neighborhood. Even a small flower bed can make the atmosphere more pleasant and give you a sense of connection to the place.
  3. Tell your friends about our referendum! Let them know that the car-free future is closer than they think!

Thanks for your time, Vavara! You can find out more about the Volksentscheid Berlin autofrei on their website.

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