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Cyclists and car drivers in Berlin fight over road space


The German capital's new conservative mayor was voted in on a promise to stand up for car drivers incensed about cyclists taking up road space. He says he does not want bike lanes to slow down cars. But as Esme Nicholson reports, cyclists are taking to the streets to do just that.


ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: When City Hall suspended the construction of 19 new bike lanes in Berlin last month, cyclists not only protested by occupying all traffic lanes, but they also took legal action. This worked, and the city authorities backpedaled on their plans. But the announcement pitted car owners and cyclists against one another, and the messaging hasn't helped.

MANJA SCHREINER: (Through interpreter) I never said we'd axe cycle paths that threaten parking spaces. That came from one of my employees without my authorization.

NICHOLSON: Manja Schreiner is the city's new transport secretary. She says safety is key and the city definitely needs more cycle lanes but that divvying up the city's roads fairly is a top priority.

SCHREINER: (Through interpreter) We want to keep as many parking spaces as possible. Put yourself in the position of someone who can no longer park outside their front door because of a bike path.

NICHOLSON: Inga Karrer is in that very position. She lives in Kreuzberg, where the Green-led district authorities are ignoring City Hall and removing parking spaces.

INGA KARRER: (Through interpreter) What annoys me most about this claim is that it's easy to find an alternative and that I can park my car in a nearby multi-story. That's pure fiction.


NICHOLSON: Kaha says it already takes her half an hour to find somewhere to park in the evenings, and she watches in disbelief as construction workers remove cobblestones with pickaxes.

MATTHIAS HESKAMP: They're taking the asphalt out, and the parking lots are going to be transformed into green spaces.

KELLY: Architect Matthias Heskamp is working together with the district council to free the neighborhood streets of cars, although he says parking will still be available for those who can't get around by other means.

HESKAMP: Those parking lots and the discussion of those people who just use it for their sake of nice comfort - they're in question.

NICHOLSON: Another local resident, Sabine Deckwerth, welcomes the decision and says she's looking forward to seeing the parking spaces grow into gardens and vegetable patches. She got rid of her car five years ago.

SABINE DECKWERTH: (Through interpreter) Public transport in central Berlin is so good, most people don't really need a car.

NICHOLSON: Deckvert cycles to work but only because she can cut through parks. She says too many of Berlin's existing bicycle lanes are in poor condition, suddenly disappear or are obstructed by parked vehicles. Anja Umann agrees.

ANJA UMANN: (Through interpreter) I hold my breath constantly when I'm on my bike because I know that you need a lot of luck to avoid having an accident.

NICHOLSON: Umann's twin sister Sandra ran out of luck last year. She was cycling to work when a concrete mixer hit her as it was turning right. Sandra was dragged by the wheels of the truck for 20 yards before the driver came to a stop. She later died in the hospital. Uman is finally back on her own bike more than half a year after her sister's death. She says the current cars-versus-bikes narrative in city politics and local media is doing nothing to improve road conditions.

UMANN: (Through interpreter) Road users in Berlin are aggressive. Drivers and cyclists alike are taking to the streets with an increasingly contrarian attitude. Why aren't we looking out for each other?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: Back in Kreuzberg, car owners who've managed to find one of the fast-diminishing parking spots are required to leave this street once a week so kindergartners can take it over. It's a taster of a city center without cars, and parents watch on as kids swerve past each other on balance bikes, scooters and toy cars, learning defensive driving early. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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