Sunday, 25 October 2015

Rush Hour in Berlin

Due to a mixture of geographic and lifestyle factors, Berlin doesn't have much of a 'rush hour' to speak of.

I have a genuine question for Berliners - is there anything resembling a rush hour in this city? Perhaps it's the area in which I reside or the nature of my work, but after four months of living here I have yet to see any difference in traffic patterns or public transport ridership during the traditional commuting times of the day.

Maybe it just seems comparatively inactive because I'm coming from Brussels, which sees bumper-to-bumper gridlock throughout the city from 7h to 10h and 16h to 19h. I've noticed that it's only gotten worse since they closed Boulevard Anspach, the main thoroughfare in central Brussels, to pedestrianise it. During my Brussels weeks these past months I've seen traffic at an absolute standstill. I'm heading to Belgium tomorrow for another Brussels week, and I expect to spend much of the week sitting in traffic.

It's quite a contrast to what I've seen in Berlin, where I don't think I've ever seen a traffic jam even once. I've not noticed the metro being particularly more crowded during the traditional commuting hours either. Maybe this is because I'm not commuting to a nine to five job these days. But I often find myself travelling at these hours. So I think there are two more likely explanations.

One is geographic. There is no real 'center' in Berlin, and people's places of work and study are spread throughout the city. So, not everyone is going to the same place at the same time.

The other is economic. The fact is, there just aren't a lot of jobs here for people to be going to. At least not traditional jobs. Despite the government's best efforts, Germany's big companies have not been convinced to relocate to Berlin since it became the country's capital once again in the 1990s. Finance is still based in Frankfurt, industry is still based in Munich and other cities, and media is still based in Hamburg and Cologne. 

In my four months here I've met very few people with traditional nine to five jobs. A lot of people are freelance working from home, like me. Some do shift work, others are launching tech start-ups, while others are artists or DJs. Many people I've met are looking for work. Berlin's unemployment rate is much higher than the rest of Germany, at 11%. Even this is a 20-year low for the city. Most of the jobs here revolve around either the services sector or the German government. 

This is another big difference from Brussels, a city that is practically overflowing with jobs (at least for white collar workers). It also means that I had to very quickly get out of the habit of asking "what do you do?" here in Berlin, even though it is the second question you ask people in Brussels after "what is your name?". 

While the answer in Brussels is usually something to do with the EU institutions or the private businesses around them, the answers in Berlin can be very complicated (and frankly, far more interesting). I'm loving it. I've met so many fascinating, creative people who, while perhaps not gainfully employed in the traditional sense, are filled with a passion for what they are doing. 

This isn't to say I never met anyone with a passion for what they are doing in Brussels. To say so would be to engage in the same type of lazy anti-Brussels stereotyping of much of the European media. My friends in Brussels care deeply about what they're doing and work very hard. But I do have to admit that too many people in Brussels seem devoid of any enthusiasm for what they do, and spend more time thinking about their next holiday than how to help Europe. I wish it wasn't so, but after six years living there I have to be honest and admit that the crude stereotype of the Brussels bureaucrat is not entirely false.

In any event, I like living in a city without a rush hour. I've lived through some pretty horrific commutes on the tube in London and the subway in New York. Berlin feels like a very different kind of metropolis - a big city without a rat race. 

I'd be curious to hear other perspectives on this. Perhaps someone commuting every day from a residential area to Mitte would feel differently. Is there a rush hour in Berlin that I'm just missing? 

On second thought, don't tell me if there is. You'll rob me of my charmed impressions of Berlin life ;-)

1 comment:

Jon Worth said...

All what you write there is true - that there's no centre means that people criss-cross the city, rather than all going from outside to in (mornings) and in to out (evenings).

There are a few other factors you also don't mention.

First, Berlin is basically an island - there are few satellite towns that people would commute from (Potsdam and Frankfurt/Oder, sort of), while Brussels has dozens (basically pretty much all the rest of Belgium, except the Ardennes). So this reduces commuter trips.

Second, demographic change since 1990 in the inner city means that Berlin has very few trips made by car, comparatively - it's about 30% of weekday trips. Conversely, Berlin has a lot more trips on foot than most other German cities - strikes me as odd as the city is large, but it's probably because you can live close-ish to your work because the city has no defined centre, and work areas and housing areas are mixed up.

I hope that makes some sense!