With a youthful population, a history of development built on public transport rather than cars and a reputation for embracing the new and fashionable, it is not surprising to find that Berlin is at the forefront of technological change when it comes to personal mobility.

Car-sharing has surged as Berliners increasingly feel little need to own a personal vehicle. Meanwhile, the overall proportion of daily trips Berliners make by car has dropped in recent years as cycling has grown in popularity.

Germany’s capital has more than 400 electric car-charging points and four hydrogen refuelling stations, making it the leading city in Germany for alternative forms of transport. A major expansion of this infrastructure is under way.

And while lacking Google’s resources, a team at Berlin’s Freie Universität has developed its own driverless car, which has been licensed for trials on the city’s streets since 2011. The car recently completed a 2,400km driverless journey through Mexico.

City authorities are determined to build on these environmentally friendly trends, as Berlin grows and parts of the city become more affluent.

Berlin is Germany’s biggest city, with a population of 3.5m. It is growing by about 50,000 people a year — excluding refugees — as the city’s vibrant culture and cheap living draws people from across Germany and Europe.

Burkhard Horn, director of the city government’s transport department, says: “It is important that these people travel using environmentally sustainable transport, that is compatible with the city — on foot, by bicycle or with public transport.”

There is potential for replacing longer distance car trips with public transport, Mr Horn says. The challenge is expanding and modernising the transport authority’s fleet, as well as building new commuter rail lines.

Burkhard Horn
Sustainability: Burkhard Horn

The geography of Berlin is suited to public transport rather than private cars. With its broad central boulevards, the city was originally traversed on foot or, for its wealthier inhabitants, by horse-drawn coach. More recently, the city grew outwards along the rail network, with residential and industrial areas congregating round the newly developed underground stations.

From genteel Charlottenburg to working class Prenzlauer Berg in the east, Berlin was organised around districts, reducing the need for cross-city commuting.

Berlin’s history also plays a role. Its cold war division and the physical isolation of West Berlin within the communist state meant that the development of a commuter belt was delayed until after reunification.

Mr Horn says: “After reunification in 1989 there was a significant rise in motorisation and car traffic in Berlin, with demonstrably negative consequences for the environment. Through a shift in the transport strategy, we have succeeded, over the last 10-15 years, in stopping this and turning it around.”

The city has pursued a combined planning and transport strategy, while investing in public transport and promoting combinations of cycling and trains.

Its size and population density make Berlin ideal for car-sharing. Details from BMW’s car-sharing service DriveNow indicate that 165,000 Berliners have signed up to the programme.

“The number of new registrations in Berlin runs at around 4,000-5,000 per month,” says Aurika Nauman press officer for DriveNow. “That’s around a third of the total DriveNow registrations in Germany.” The car-sharing scheme collaborates with Berlin’s public transport authority, offering a special rate for public transport season ticket holders and integrating its vehicles into the transport authority’s mobile app.

Ms Nauman says: “Each DriveNow vehicle has replaced three private cars. That has freed parking space, and reduced the amount of time spent looking for a space. Parking pressure has been reduced and so have emissions.”

One notable transport flop has been the ride-sharing service, Uber. Its low-cost ride sharing service UberPop has been banned by city authorities, who cited safety concerns and the threat to licensed drivers from unregulated competition. The company endures as a taxi-hailing service in competition with rivals such as Daimler’s mytaxi.

In the more distant future, the autonomous car may shake up the city’s transport options. But city authorities say it is too early to forecast the impact of such technology on transport choices.

While self-driving cars may reduce accidents, they will take up as much space as human-driven cars.

“Public space on our streets is too precious to devote it to traffic,” Mr Horn says.

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