Hamburg Is Not Going To Be Car-Free: Few Lessons

It all started in the beginning of 2014, when the news about Hamburg planning to make its centre car free started to appear online. Sadly, I read the other day on Streetfilms that Hamburg has actually never declared a car-free city center. That’s a bummer, because I hoped was sure they really plan to do it and I thought it’s a great idea. Apparently the city issued a statement a couple of weeks after the rumors had started, claiming that they don’t have any plans to do so, but even that didn’t stop honored media outlets, like the BBC, to keep publishing stories about the fabulous future of the 2nd largest city in Germany.

Now that we know that Hamburg is not planning to go car-free, there are few issues that need to be addressed: how did the car-free fairy tale became a common knowledge? What is Hamburg actually going to do if not to ban cars? and lastly, what can we learn from the story?

First things first, I tried to find the original appearance of the story in the English-language media. The earliest car-free article I could find was published on January 7th, 2014 on Archdaily. The source of the story was a statement by Angelika Fritsch, a spokeswoman for the city's department of urban planning and the environment, to the Guardian: “In 15 to 20 years you'll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot” (October 31th, 2013). Archdaily kind of twisted Fritsch’s words, and to be fair the quote could be interpreted as a car-free plan. I’m not sure if the Guardian translated Fritsch’s statement from German, or Fritsch just spoke in English and didn’t expressed herself clear enough, but in any case there is no question that she never intended to say that Hamburg will ban cars.

Few weeks on, and Hamburg issued an official statement: “Hamburg is not planning car-free city”. The city was not so fast to issue its denial to the rumor, and when it did it was in German. Because of the late denial, and since it wasn’t in English, the car-free story kept reappearing in the news and is now common knowledge in urban planning circles. In Germany, on the other hand, they already didn’t understand in 2014 why the world thinks that Hamburg is about to ban cars.

Hamburg’s official statement: “Hamburg is not planning car-free city”.

Hamburg’s official statement: “Hamburg is not planning car-free city”.

So what is Hamburg actually planning to do by 2034? They are building “a network around bikes and pedestrians, linking car-free roads to parks and playgrounds, from the city centre to the suburbs” (from that original article on the Guardian). It’s not as great as a car-free city, but not bad for a car-centric metropolis. Actually, while researching for this post, I read news from a few days ago that Hamburg might go car-free during the 2024 Olympic Games, in case they will get to host the event. It’s only an idea though, and the chances of Hamburg actually winning the bid are uncertain.

So, what can we learn from the entire story?

  1. “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” - Benjamin franklin. And check the source of articles, especially when Google Translate is so great.
  2. If you are a city marketeer or politician, issue ambiguous statements in English about grandiose green plans, and then assure to the locals, in the local language, that it’s nonsense. You’ll get great press without actually doing anything.
  3. People want car-free cities, and that’s probably why the story became so big. It’s a shame that Hamburg is not planning to ban cars from the center, and I hope it will happen soon in another city.

Update: Only after publishing this post I came across Joe Baur's piece about Hamburg. He had already tracked back to Archdaily.

Thumbnail image by:  [RAW], licensed under Creative Commons.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.