Stephanie Gimenez Stahlberg is a PhD student in SAIS International Development Program, where she focuses on governance, social policy, and monitoring & evaluation. Before coming to SAIS, she worked as a research associate at Stanford University, primarily researching the community policing program in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

After being divided for part of the twentieth century, Berlin is now running an integrated and well-functioning transportation system. The German capital offers many urban development lessons to other cities, including in the developing world. Policies that discourage private vehicle use combined with the provision of good alternative means of transportation can lead to a more sustainable and efficient urban transportation system. In addition, making good use of data and user feedback can help a city identify successful policies, current needs, and future trends.

The population of Berlin is around 3.4 million people, making it one of the largest cities in Europe. Berlin has various modes of public transportation: the metro (U-Bahn), local trains (S-Bahn), regional trains that connect the city to other parts of the country, street trams (Straßenbahn), buses, and ferries. Berliners are able to transfer from one mode to the other with ease. In general, when people want to travel across the city, they take the S-Bahn. The lines for the S-Bahn run farther, crossing the whole city and ending in neighboring towns. For travel within a part of the city, people take the U-Bahn, trams or buses, or walk and bike. 

Berlin has 324 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, which is a remarkably low rate compared to other cities in the developed world (the number for Germany overall is 588). 48 percent of Berlin households have 1 car, 45 percent have no car, 7 percent have 2 cars, and only 1 percent have more than 2 cars. Private vehicles are more commonly used in neighborhoods farther away from the city center, while in downtown more trips are made by public transportation, biking and walking (City of Berlin 2013, 17). Table 1 shows how the modal split in Berlin has been moving away from car trips to more walking and biking.


Some of the policies that discourage the use of private vehicles in Berlin are in the hands of the local government, while others are the jurisdiction of the federal government and apply to all of Germany. The federal government imposes a relatively expensive vehicle tax based on engine size and CO2 emissions, making it less attractive to own a large car. Fuel tax in Germany is also high, with the price per gallon double that of the United States (EIA 2015). Subsequently, the combined result of these policies is that owning and operating a car costs 50 percent more in Germany than in the United States. 

Policies unique to Berlin also contribute to the inconvenience of driving a car in the city. The city has controlled parking zones where parking permits are required, which are only available to those who reside on that street. Berlin manages 94,350 parking spaces, and the city has around 1.3 million vehicles (SDfUDE 1). Parking in the city center is very limited and there is no free parking. Moreover, the city introduced an Environmental Zone around the city center in 2008 in an effort to control air and noise pollution. Only cars that have been certified to produce lower levels of emissions are allowed in this zone. The creation of the Environmental Zone combined with other noise abatement measures (such as the 30km/h speed limits at night) have reduced the adverse effects of car traffic and increased quality of life in the city (SDfUDE 2). Nevertheless, discouraging car use will not be effective or fair unless a city offers good alternatives to private vehicle use.

Starting in the mid-1970s, transport policies in Germany and other parts of Europe shifted from being car-centric to dramatically favoring walking, cycling, and public transport (Pucher and Buehler 2008, 502). Still, Berlin had many integration challenges after reunification in 1990. Bus drivers were given maps because they did not know how to navigate the other side of the city. Some of the transfers, particularly between the S- and U-Bahn lines that were bisected or separated by the Wall, are still less efficient today (Peck 2014). In spite of these challenges, Berlin has made great progress in connecting the system and making it easy for people to travel and commute by public transport. One of the distinguishing features of this system is the electronic fahrCard tickets that are valid in all public transport: the S- and U-Bahn, buses, trams, and ferries. 

Integration was made easier by the fact that most of the public transportation modes are administered by the same organization: Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). BVG was reconstituted as a public body in 1994 and it is responsible for the U-Bahn, buses, trams and ferries. The S-Bahn is operated by S-Bahn Berlin GmbH (SDfUDE 3). In many developing country cities, various private companies operate the buses, making it more difficult to integrate routes and schedules. In such a system, drivers compete for passengers and make traffic less safe or efficient. 

Policies that make walking and biking easier are also extremely important. Targeted regional land-use policies in Germany encourage compact, mixed-use development, and as a result, many of Berlin’s buildings have shops at the ground level with apartments upstairs. This design makes trips shorter, and therefore more likely to be done by foot or bike, but it also makes it more pleasant to walk on the street. A current trend in the developing world is to locate new buildings some distance from streets with a large area of green or parking between the two (a design often seen in the United States). This setup makes it less practical to have shops at the ground level and the walking trip is less pleasant. Studies have found that longer walking distances to bus and tram stops are accepted where there is variety in building fronts (GTZ 2004, 9). 

Today, an average of four out of ten trips in Berlin are done by foot or bicycle (City of Berlin 2013, 36). The city has invested in good biking infrastructure: there is nearly 1000km of cycling facilities in Berlin, with 662km of these dedicated to bike paths and 174km to bike lanes. Park and Ride stations exist all over Berlin and its outskirts (SDfUDE 4). Some roads have given up a traffic lane for a bike lane (following a “road diet”). These are what the city calls “exemplary roads,” because they provide a sustained contribution to an environmentally friendly choice of transport and to noise reduction (City of Berlin 2013, 103). The figure bellow shows the “exemplary road” model. It is interesting to compare this figure to the chaotic street traffic in Mumbai, India, with no clear separation between different modes of transport (see figure 2). It seems clear that the Berlin road model is safer and more efficient.

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Many of Berlin’s innovative and progressive biking policies come from its cycling advisory board, the FahrRat. Established in 2003, the board meets 2 to 3 times a year to discuss new developments and how the cycling strategy is working (SDfUDE 5). Participants include stakeholders from business, the bike industry, the city administration, research institutes, universities, bike experts, and advocacy groups (Pucher and Buehler 2008, 521). The council produces Berlin’s Cycling Strategy, which is implemented by the city government. The strategy includes traffic education and training for school children and motorists, and biking promotion events. A good example of the latter from the developing world is the Ciclovía in Bogota, where entire streets are closed to cars on Sundays and holidays and many people choose to bike.

Furthermore, Berlin makes good use of data to inform its action plans, the City Transport and Development Plan (Stadtentwicklungsplan Verkehr), Walking Strategy (Fußverkehrsstrategie) and Cycling Strategy (Radverkehrsstrategie). Berlin’s staff tracks the number of people moving into and out of Berlin, in order to know the number of commuters and their trip directions. These and many other numbers are published in the report Mobility in the City: Berlin Traffic in Figures, which is regularly published since 2001. A Pedestrian Survey conducted in 2012 measured the satisfaction of people with pedestrian-related issues in the city, and informed Berlin’s Pedestrian Strategy, which has 10 model projects to make walking easier and safer (SDfUDE 6). Surveys, participatory meetings, and advisory councils provide direct feedback to the city on what is working, what can be improved, and what future trends might be.

In conclusion, Berlin offers important urban transportation lessons to other cities, including in the developing world. A combination of policies that discourage car use and offer good alternatives to the car can be very effective. Berlin makes driving expensive and inconvenient, by eliminating free car parking and keeping fuel prices high. It also offers a well-functioning and integrated public transportation system, and employs a series of pro-bike policies: separate cycling lanes along heavily traveled roads, traffic calming of most residential neighborhoods, ample bike parking, full integration with public transport, comprehensive traffic education, and events to promote biking. The urban architecture is also very important, created by strict land-use policies of high density and mixed-use development.  In essence, if you make it fast, convenient and safe, people will walk and bike. The same rationale works for public transportation: with a system that covers most of the city, is reliable, fast and affordable, more people will choose to leave their car at home, or not buy a car at all. A city that is less dependent on private vehicle use is a more sustainable city.


NOTE ONE: In South Africa, minibus drivers engage in violent “turf wars.” 


City of Berlin. Mobilität in Berlin. 2008. 

City of Berlin. Mobility in the City: Berlin Traffic in Figures. 2013. 

EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). “Retail Premium Gasoline Prices.” 12 March 2015.

GTZ. Sustainable Transport: A Sourcebook for Policy-Makers in Developing Countries. Module 2a Land Use Planning and Urban Transport. 2004.

Peck, John. “Mapping Berlin’s Transit System.” August 5 2014.

Pucher, John and Ralph Buehler. “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.” Transport Reviews 28 no. 4 (2008): 495-528.
SDfUDE 1 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Driving and Parking Controls.” Berlin, Germany.

SDfUDE 2 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Environmental Protection.” Berlin, Germany. 

SDfUDE 3 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Transportation Funding.” Berlin, Germany.

SDfUDE 4 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Park and Ride.” Berlin, Germany.

SDfUDE 5 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Cycling: Expert Panel on Cycling Development in Berlin – The FahrRat.” Berlin, Germany.

SDfUDE 6 (Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment). “Pedestrian Strategy: 10 Model Projects.” Berlin, Germany.