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Automobile vs. tram

In grad school, I was fortunate enough to be a teaching assistant for a class called Urban Real Estate Economics, which was taught by Dr. Richard Voith. It was one of my favorite classes. So if you ever find yourself at the Wharton School, I would highly recommend it.

Richard is also the President of a consulting firm in Philadelphia called Econsult Solutions. And I think a lot of what they focus on would be of interest to the audience of this blog. Their focus is on urban economics, real estate economics, transportation, public policy, and – you get the idea.

Recently, he wrote a post called, Moving Cities: Berlin, where he outlines some of the transportation decisions that West and East Berlin made in the second half of the 20th century. 

What I found most interesting was how the trams of East Berlin were stigmatized to represent communism and a centrally planned economy. On the other hand, West Berlin was all about the free market, and the symbol for that was none other than the automobile. That meant that the trams had to go. 

Here is a quote that he shares from B.R. Shenoy, first published in August 15th, 1960:

“The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. Buses and trams dominate the thoroughfares in East Berlin; other automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. One notices cars parked in front of workers’ quarters in West Berlin… In contrast with what one sees in West Berlin, the buildings [in East Berlin] here are generally grey from neglect, the furnishings lack in brightness and quality, and the roads and pavements are shabby…”

My favorite line: “…jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic.”

Of course, Berlin wasn’t the only city to eschew trams in the 20th century. Detroit and Los Angeles both did exactly the same thing. But in Berlin, this philosophy wasn’t applied equally across the urban fabric. And that’s what makes it a particularly interesting case study.

I don’t know Berlin well enough to comment specifically, but Richard writes about how parts of East Berlin remained quite pedestrian friendly compared to West Berlin. That makes intuitive sense, given that it didn’t reorient itself towards the car in the same way that the West did. That being the case, I am curious to what extent those parts of the city may be benefiting today.

In any event, you should also give Richard’s article a read. You can do that here.

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