While many Berliners rely on the biking and public transportation to get around the city, there is also a strong car culture in the German capital. Many Berliners own a car despite the steep cost of gas but leave them parked for weeks at a time until they need to go shopping in a distant neighbourhood or have to speed across town to a government office.
Driving through Berlin can be a headache. To get from Prenzlauer Berg to nearby Kreuzberg you’ll need 20 minutes, but trying to go further south to Wilmersdorf will take more than half an hour thanks to a never-ending series of traffic lights. Traversing town from west to east is simplified by Strasse des 17 Juni and Unter den Linden, the streets conceived by Prussian kings and expanded by Hitler. Going from Spandau to Friedrichshain will take just under a half an hour.
Berlin drivers manage to be an aggressive bunch while still obeying traffic laws, except when it comes to speeding. People will tailgate and potentially flash their lights if they think you’re going too slowly but ultimately no one will cut you off, make illegal lane changes or otherwise threaten your safety. If you make a mistake, expect to be chastised by fellow drivers since Germans are always aware of who technically is right and love to point it out when they notice a transgressor.
Street Art Sticker and bicycle in Berlin-MitteBikes can prove another challenge. Parked cars often separate bike paths from streets, so it’s not always easy to see if a bike is paralleling your car. Check your outside mirror repeatedly when turning right to avoid cutting anyone off.
You’ll be happy to know that Berlin has relatively few car accidents: just over 10,000 a month, with about 10% of those resulting in personal injury. In 2006, 74 people were killed in traffic accidents in the city.
What non-drivers need to know
The most important thing for non-drivers to know is the difference between the pavement and the bike path. Bike paths are usually identifiable because they are laid out in a distinctive red brick. If you find yourself strolling onto one, it won’t take long until a zooming cyclist berates you. The reverse is true for cyclists: riding on the pavement is illegal, so opt for the street if there’s no bike path.
Intersections are clearly marked and usually include a crosswalk. Although it’s more common in other parts of Germany, expats are often baffled by pedestrians’ unwillingness to jaywalk. If you do jaywalk, you’re likely to hear someone grumble, if not openly criticise you for so blatantly flaunting the rules.
Traffic rules and regulations
When cruising through neighbourhoods with no stop signs, cars to the right always have the right of way. The speed limit within the city is 50kph unless otherwise noted. The fastest you can go on the highways within the city is 100kph, and the unlimited speed limits don’t kick in on the Autobahn until you’re well outside the city.
If you get caught speeding by a traffic camera, you’ll get a ticket in the mail. And be forewarned: rental car companies will forward these tickets to your home address, so you won’t escape them. The police also set up speed traps and may require you to pay on the spot.
A diamond-shaped sign with a yellow centre means you have the right of way at an intersection. All traffic lights also have such signs to show who has the advantage should the lights go out, which seems to happen quite frequently for a society that prides itself on order.
You may only pass on the left and Germans do, in fact, only pass on the left.
Nice Park Job: This kind of parking is actually really common in BerlinParking
Parking in Berlin has yet to reach the nightmare stage but it’s still an inconvenience. Neighbourhoods that require metered parking will also have exceptions for residents (you can get a permit at the Einwohnermeldeamt).
Most Berliners rely on street parking, so expect a long search if you need a spot on Sunday night when everyone returns from the weekend. If you’re parking in a metered area, you’ll have to rely on coins because there are no monthly parking passes and machines still don’t accept the debit cards.
Gas stations are universally self-service: you pump your gas yourself and then go inside to pay. Most have a car wash that will be busy at weekends. Most importantly, gas stations are one of the few businesses open around the clock, as well as Sundays, making them default convenience stores for everything from bread and beer to cleaning supplies.
German oil companies are phasing out regular unleaded gas, forcing consumers to buy super unleaded or the even higher octane premium. Gas is more expensive in Germany than in the UK or US, largely due to taxes. Diesel is also popular in cost-conscious Berlin.
Traffic fines and offences
Whenever anyone talks about traffic fines, they’ll mention ‘points in Flensburg,’ which refers to the national headquarters of the police in the northern German city of Flensburg. This is where your driving record is kept. Drivers all start off with no ‘points in Flensburg’ but can lose their licence if they accumulate 18 points within a certain period (this varies depending on the offences).
Offences that will get you up to four points are considered simple ones, while those that earn between five and seven points are considered criminal. Driving while intoxicated will win you seven points as well as the immediate loss of your driving licence. If it’s your first offence, it will likely only be taken for three to six months. You’ll also have to pay a fine calculated according to your income, for example 120 days’ worth of pay.
Going up to 25kph over the speed limit will get you one point and up to a €50 fine. Anything above 30kph over the posted limit will win you three or four points and a fine of at least €100. You’ll also lose your licence for at least a month.
Driving without a licence will ensure that you don’t have a licence for at least another six months, as well as gain you a stiff fine – 180 days’ pay is what the law calls for. Since you don’t technically have a licence, you can’t accrue any points. If you just forget your licence, you’re looking at a €10 warning.
And buckle up: seatbelts are mandatory in Germany, as are childseats. Driver’s are fined €30 per offender.
Stay tuned for part two in our series: Driving in Berlin: Buying, renting, insurance and registering your car
Reprinted with permission of Explorer Publishing from the Berlin Complete Residents' Guides.
Photo credit: Jacob Bøtter; urbanartcore.eu; pthread1981