My interest in traveling to Hamburg, Germany piqued following news early last year that the city would become car-free over the next 15 to 20 years. The distaste I hold for high-speed coffins is well-documented here at withoutapath.com, so it should come as no surprise that I immediately started formalizing ideas in my head to visit the city and check it out for myself.
Unfortunately, the story turned out to be just that — a story. A story with about just as much truth as one might expect in a story aimed at a rambunctious four-year-old to calm them the fuck down and go to sleep. In fact, it didn’t take much to find out the truth behind this alleged car-free business. My very first contact in the city shared that although she wished the story to be true, it was ultimately an idea a British journalist ran with. Of course, that didn’t stop some of the world’s most prestigious news outlets from sharing the news. Even now I struggle to find where this story originated. A BBC story links to inhabitat.com, which links to archdaily.com who links to theguardian.com. The latter article from October 2013 only mentions a plan to link car-free roads, so it’s unclear how it leapt from that to a city center without cars.
In any event, I was now drawn to finding out what was really going on in Hamburg. Plus I already knew I was heading to Berlin and Frankfurt on opposite ends of the country, so a stop in Hamburg was a solid excuse to checkout Germany’s rail system while producing a couple of videos for Streetfilms.
There was a cool mist in the air by the time I arrived to the Hauptbahnhof of Hamburg (main station), which inconveniently turned to a steady drum of rain as I stepped out of the station’s shelter. I decided to nix my plan of walking the two kilometers to my hotel in favor of a quick train connection. Although June, the weather had been and would continue to be for my short time in Hamburg unseasonably cool and rainy. More like April in Ireland than summer in Germany.
I was staying at the Scandic Hamburg Emporio, arriving to the hotel in the middle of a Midsummer Nights Dream-themed party taking place in the lobby. I was invited to hang around by the hotel staff, but I somehow managed to travel without my Puck outfit and politely declined. Instead, I wanted to get on foot to explore a bit of the city before heading out with my camera. This led to a quiet, evening jaunt to a nearby restaurant.
Compared to Berlin, there was a palpable calm to Hamburg — not entirely surprising considering Hamburg is half the size of Berlin at approximately 1.7 million inhabitants with a much smaller population density. The city’s sprawling nature might have something to do with that. Merja Spott of the German Cyclists’ Federation featured in the Streetfilms video, told me about how the city had been completely destroyed during the second World War. Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign led by the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces in July of 1943, killed 42,600 civilians and wounded 37,000 while decimating nearly the entirety of Hamburg. In rebuilding, they went with the style of development that had become popular in the States — big, wide roads for cars. This is part of the cycling community’s issue with the infrastructure in Hamburg and why they feel a car-free city would currently be impossible.
The Consummate Professional
I knew I had just one full day to film across Hamburg and see the city for myself while making time for a couple of interviews, so I started with a visit to Ahoi Velo Cargobikes with René Reckschwardt. He aptly suggested that if I wanted to get a sense of the city’s cycling scene, we should go for a ride. But keeping with the theme of his shop, I hopped into the front of his cargobike so I could film along the way. I imagined we looked like an incredibly unthreatening version of the Batman and Robin from the 60s — as if they weren’t unthreatening enough in their spandex.
We ended up on a crushed gravel trail in the middle of a park alongside a fairly active street. One thing Hamburg does have, if not a plan to go car-free, is an impressive amount of green spaces. What better place to grab a scenic shot for an interview? I thought.
Again, it was unseasonably cool and René was well-prepared with a jacket while I shivered in a poorly planned tee-shirt. Of course, I didn’t reveal my discomfort or let it hamper the interview. I’m a consummate professional, after all.
Following our chat, I headed back east toward the Hauptbahnhof to chat with the aforementioned Merja Spott. This gave me a chance to really get some walking in as I let my camera roll. Sure the weather was far from ideal — I’m not sure if I saw the sun my entire time in Hamburg — but it was enjoyable to walk, admire the architecture of those buildings which managed to survive constant bombing, and see the busy crowds working their way around the city on bike or foot.
Closing in on my meeting with Merja, I was spotted by a couple of women filming at St. Georg Kirchhof, a small plaza anchored by an old church that’s pretty common across northern Europe. They were, if I remember correctly, Turkish immigrants preparing for a Ramadan festival. It was also a bit of linguistic roulette as we worked back and forth from their broken (yet still superior to my German) English to my largely incomprehensible take on German. They had been searching for an extra videographer to help out, but sadly the event would be starting the next day as I was leaving. Still, it ended up easily being one of my most memorable exchanges in Germany, completely validating my decision to learn basic German before the trip.
After chatting with Merja, I was done with interviews for the day. Unlucky for me, the Irish rain decided to kick back in, forcing me to make a beeline for the closest café to kill time until it hopefully went away. That led me to Max & Consorten for a bowl of hot tomato soup and espresso. A few older folks had already staked claim to a bar stool, taking in an afternoon pint as the less-than-favorable weather continued.
Impatient, I moved out as soon as the rain slowed back to a tolerable mist and made my way to the train station for a ride over to Landungsbrücken in southwest Hamburg along the Elbe River. It was an area suggested to me by Merja for checking out some of the latest cycling infrastructure and happened to be a tourist favorite.
Tour buses, as Stefan Warda of Hamburgize.com would later note, indeed crowded the streets as tourists flocked to the waterfront. Despite the cool mist, locals and visitors alike were out in full force to take in some of the sights. This was a distinctly different looking corner of Hamburg compared to where I had been walking around earlier with the train station dropping you off above traffic on a natural slope lined with old, colorful buildings. The cycling infrastructure I was sent to see was a bike lane moved away from the sidewalk where wandering tourists were crowding the lane, causing safety issues for all involved, to the street itself. Considering the amount of space left for cars, about four lanes worth in some parts, it seems like a no-brainer in retrospect.
Exhausted and a bit damp, I headed back to the hotel to wind down and prepare for my final day in Hamburg.
Keeping with my consummate professional persona, I rose early to hit the streets and capture the cycling crowd out for morning rush hour over in the Schanzenstraße area. Now, this was a controversial chunk of Hamburg cycling, because the cycle lane is on the sidewalk. Though things seemed to move rather swimmingly during my morning jaunt, Stefan has reported often at his site issues cyclists and pedestrians have with the lane. It was something he reiterated when we chatted later that morning and it fit a constant theme throughout my visit that local politicians are hesitant to take space away from cars because the powers that be drive cars.
Of course that’s a problem the world-over. After some prodding, everyone I spoke with finally admitted that cycling in Hamburg is great when compared to just about the rest of the world, Copenhagen, Munich, and Berlin being some of the exceptions I was given. Speaking as a North American in the heart of “cars = legs” country, I would love to have Hamburg’s problems.
Before saying goodbye to Hamburg, I went wandering for a local favorite to fill me up before the four to five-hour train ride down to Frankfurt. What I found was Le Golden Igel, a modest-sized eatery squeeze into a residential side street led by a British chef. I went with a burrito that was both delicious and a terrific send-off to Frankfurt. With that, I rolled my bag back to the Hauptbahnhof to watch the trains a bit before settling in for a smooth ride down south to German wine country.
Special thanks to Hamburg Tourism, Scandic Hamburg Emporio, Stefan Ward at Hamburgize, Merja Spott with the German Cyclists’ Federation, René Reckschwardt at Ahoi Velo Cargobikes, Manfrotto and RØDE Microphones.