Berlin transport strike brings out the best -- and the worst

15th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

The German drivers' deserved reputation for impatience and aggression has come to the fore.

Berlin -- A public transport strike has brought out the worst and the best in Berliners.
The generously laid-out German capital is graced with a superb public transport system and broad thoroughfares that are seldom clogged. Now those roads are logjammed during peak-hour traffic, and the frustrations are showing.

"There was lots of hooting and a lot of idiots blocking the crossroads," Michaela said on arriving at work one morning a week into the total shutdown of underground train and tram services, along with almost all bus services.

Hooting is a common reaction even when no strike is on. Drivers, who can see a refuse truck blocking the way and know the workers are impervious to their irritation until the job is done, still hoot.

Now the German drivers' deserved reputation for impatience and aggression has come to the fore.

"There's certainly more aggression," says Christian, whose route by bicycle leads him along the city's outskirts to the Free University.

Many Berliners have taken advantage of the early spring to dust off their bicycles locked up in the cellar over the winter and cycle to work.

But the inexperience of many of these enforced converts to pedal power weaving their way uncertainly through the traffic has led to irritation among motorists.

"There were lots more cyclists this morning not used to traffic, and they do stupid things," was a remark from Andreas, 47, as he arrived at work.

"Cyclists are not much loved here in Berlin in any case," says Suat, a 35-year-old taxi driver of Turkish origin. "They're so arrogant."

In fact, Berlin suffers an astonishing lack of gridlock on normal days, by comparison with crowded European capitals like London or Amsterdam.

Even on strike days, the tailbacks clear by 9 a.m. on most major roads.

Most Berliners have adapted rapidly to the strike, switching to the suburban S-Bahn rail service operations of the national rail company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), which have not been affected.

The S-Bahn has seen a 50-percent rise in passengers, resulting in clogged station entrances at the major intersections.

"That's where my extra customers have come from," says Suat. "They take the S-Bahn to the closest station and then hail a taxi."

He puts the rise in custom at no more than 30 percent, however, contradicting reports that taxi drivers are making a killing.

"I don't like the strike. It means more stress and more tailbacks, and you don't really make more money. I prefer quiet conditions, so I can get to the destination quickly and pick up another fare."

In what could be bad news for the strikers, he believes most Berliners can live with the effects of the strike.

"It was bad on the first two days, but people are getting used to it," he says. "Only the central areas are badly affected."

Students have been hit. Berlin has three major universities, apart from dozens of colleges, despite a population of just 3.4 million -- a hangover from the days of the divided city, when both sides turned their halves into showcases.

Few students can afford the expensive accommodation near the lecture halls and laboratories in the center and have to travel.

"It's a real drag," one young woman clutching her folders was overheard to say on a crowded S-Bahn train, "but I have to attend a seminar today."

But there are bright spots too. The Berliner Zeitung, a leftish daily, set up a website for commuters to offer lifts and was surprised at the response.

"Helping is the natural thing to do," nursing sister Agnes told the newspaper when asked why she was prepared to take a detour through the clogged roads to pick up a strike-bound fellow-worker.

Julie related how her boss had given her the use of a company car for the duration of the strike so that she could get herself and a colleague who lives nearby to and from work.

Part of the reason for the good humor is the widespread belief that the public transport drivers and other personnel have a strong case.

"They should get more money," says Suat. "You can't keep a family on their wages."

DPA with Expatica

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