Kaid Benfield Archive


Ich bin ein Berliner (where they drive less)

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 21, 2008 at 1:01PM

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Berlin's showcase contemporary public space, the Sony Center (c2008, F. Kaid Benfield) a neighborhod in East Berlin (c2008, F. Kaid Benfield)

I am in Berlin (and so is the Dalai Lama, or at least so he was on Monday, as I discovered when I encountered his massive crowd).  And so apparently is Paul Krugman, a columnist for the International Herald-Tribune who has written a very pertinent op-ed on smart development and transportation.

Now, I don't really know if Krugman was thinking about "smart growth" as we know it - actually, even better if he wasn't - when he wrote in today's (Tuesday's) edition of the Herald Trib that cities like Berlin have much to offer Americans as we struggle to cope with a world of higher gasoline prices.  I just happened across his column today as I was relaxing at a cafe with a splendid view of Berlin's old cathedral, and it seemed too serendipitous to keep to myself:

"I have seen the future, and it works.

"O.K., I know that these days you're supposed to see the future in China or India, not in the heart of 'old Europe.'

"But we're living in a world in which oil prices keep setting records, in which the idea that global oil production will soon peak is rapidly moving from fringe belief to mainstream assumption. And Europeans who have achieved a high standard of living in spite of very high energy prices - gas in Germany costs more than $8 a gallon - have a lot to teach us Americans about how to deal with that world.

"If Europe's example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: Own fuel-efficient cars, and don't drive them too much . . .

"To see what I'm talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping. [note: see example above.]

"It's the kind of neighborhood in which people don't have to drive a lot, but it's also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin - but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars . . ."

Go here for the whole column.

Oops (c2008, F. Kaid Benfield)Only one complaint from me about Berlin transportation so far:  as friendly as the city is to bicyclists, and as good an idea as that is, the culture here of riding on the sidewalk is nicht sehr gut for walkers.  I haven't seen a collision yet, but I've already seen a hair-raising near-miss.  Those of you who have been here (I haven't, until now) will no doubt point out that the cyclists have a delineated space on the sidewalk.  To which I say:  are you serious?  Rely on that at your peril.  Really, as a cyclist I personally would prefer the roadway (cars are somewhat more predictable than people), and as a walker I definitely would like a little less need to look over my shoulder.

Public transit, by the way, seems to go most everywhere and is ridiculously easy to use.  Auf wiedersehn.