Since the post-war period, our lives have been influenced more by motorization than we imagine. “The City and the Car” is the name of an exhibition in Hamburg that traces these changes and aims to initiate a discussion about the use of the car and its alternatives.

City Roads


“I believe in the horse. The automobile is a temporary phenomenon.” This is how Wilhelm II judged at the beginning of the 20th century. Today we know that the last German emperor was wrong! We are mass-motorized. The traffic roars and roars. And often he stands still. Honking, rattling, smelly standstill. If you are in the U.S., you might as well donate car to charity Washington.

What did our cities actually look like when there were no or only a few cars? Much of what surrounds us today as a matter of course was missing. For example, traffic lights. In 1922, the first traffic light was set up at Hamburg’s central Stephansplatz, says Dr. Jürgen Bönig:

“The reason is that the trams needed traffic control. that they met and then the question was always who would drive over next. And a traffic light has been set up for this.”

Jürgen Bönig is a research associate at the Hamburg Museum der Arbeit and has designed an exhibition about the city and the car. Hamburg’s Stephansplatz has always been an important transport hub, he knows. After the Second World War, not only tram lines but also a lot of cars ran here. The masses of pedestrians had no chance to cross the street.

Böning: “In the 50s, the first pedestrian traffic lights were also held at Stephansplatz, where pedestrian traffic at this intersection was regulated. And in response to many accidents on school routes, there were also these traffic lights that you say a pedestrian traffic light is one where someone has to ask to go over.”

The increase in urban traffic lights clearly reflects the growth of car traffic. In 1955 there were seventeen traffic lights in Hamburg, in 1960 already three hundred and fourteen and in 1967 seven hundred and thirty-five traffic lights. Today there are one thousand seven hundred. Traffic light systems, as it is officially called. One at almost every intersection. Without traffic lights, urban traffic would collapse, says Jürgen Bönig:

“The accident is actually the reason why buildings are built in traffic areas. You make a small fence on the edge of the sidewalk. you make a bridge, you make a crossing, you make a traffic light to structurally separate the streams that otherwise shared the urban space.”

As early as 1948, sixty-seven children died in Hamburg’s road traffic.

Bönig: “That was the reason for the traffic planners to say that we have to take structural measures. and we need to regulate the relationship between pedestrians and cyclists, public transport and cars. And this regulation has always been at the expense of the other parties involved. The car took up the most space in the city.”

The pedestrian masses, which still existed in the 50s, were directed to their own paths, bridges or tunnels so that they did not disturb traffic in cars. Likewise, the cyclists were given their own paths, so that the car had free travel. And the children, they were brought up.

None of this was of little use. The concept of “free travel for free citizens”, with which the ADAC advertised even after the oil crisis in 1974, brought the German citizens more than 20,000 traffic fatalities every year. Over five times as much as today.

Bönig: “The car is not a practical means of transport, but an emotional bomb. It is something that has kept the economy going, which was, so to speak, the sign of prosperity, one’s own four walls, even if they were made of sheet metal. That was private space. It was the journey, the possibility of freedom. And in the city, this possibility of freedom has negated itself. When everyone goes there, you end up hitting only cars and not what you want.”

It was the car that brought the separation of living and working into the cities, says architectural historian Dr. Ralf Lange:

“More and more people moved to the outer urban areas. Or there was already suburbanization back then. They went beyond the city limits. And the shops, they practically moved along. Of course, this whole development would not have been conceivable without mass motorization.”

New development areas and huge shopping malls with equally huge parking decks on the greenfield were created. Without connection to public transport. Apartments and shopping malls designed for customers with private cars.

Lange: “If you ask about the relationship between the car and urban planning, then we actually get very quickly into the Nazi era, into the development after 1933, when at the same time a surprisingly modern urban planning was carried out with the claim to expand German cities into representative centers of the NSDAP. They wanted to renovate the cities, they wanted to bring in more greenery, loosen up the development, practically eradicate the entire undesirable development of the previous urban planning. And has given the car a very, very important role. And thus drawn a vision of the future, so to speak.”

Although it was an absolute luxury to own a car at the time, they planned as if every second household had a car, says Ralf Lange.


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Lange: “Suddenly, motorway rings were planned around the roads. It was planned to widen the existing streets in the cities. So an urban planning, which we actually basically associate more with the 50s, early 60s, took place at the end of the 30s. And interestingly, throughout World War II.”

Konstaty Gutschow, the “architect for the redesign of the Hanseatic city of Hamburg” sponsored by Albert Speer, had to take his hat off after 1945. But, says Ralf Lange, his employees sat in the commission that drew up the reconstruction plan:

“There were a lot of free and permanent former employees of Gutschow in it. The same people planned the reconstruction of Hamburg, who stood in the shadow of the highest 45 years ago, so to speak. Employees of Gutschow were. And of course they saved many of these ideas over the age of 45.”

Ideas that we shake our heads about today, says Sven Badua, author and expert in technical and economic history. From 1945 onwards, car traffic had an unrestricted priority. Roads were extended from two to six or even eight lanes. And in order to connect the newly added districts with the city in a car-friendly way, wide aisles were cut through the city.

Badua: “That’s how the east-west road was created. or the new Amsinckstraße. People in the 50s and 60s were convinced that this was the right thing to do. And this inhospitableness that we feel today in these streets was not perceived as such at the time. That was chic, that was modern. The narrowness of the old town, that was what you wanted to get rid of. ”

Until the beginning of the 50s, the car-friendly city was the guiding principle of urban planners. Soon, however, they realized that the ever-increasing parking space for the flowing traffic became a problem. In 1954, therefore, there were the first parking meters in the city center.

Badua: “And that’s why the first large multi-storey car parks were built in the city centre very early, in 1956. That was a real innovation at the time, because you didn’t recognize this problem at all before.”

To this day, the parking problem remains unsolved, says Sven Badua. The city dweller would need his car for an average of one hour a day. So it has to be somewhere for 23 hours.

Badua: “It usually occupies 13m². But in a parking garage it takes twice as much, because you have to add all these ramps and access roads. This means that a parking garage must have 25 square meters per car. And so it slowly becomes clear what dimension this stationary car actually needs.”

The parking area that Hamburg’s cars need today is as large as old and new town combined, says Sven Badua. Space that is missing elsewhere. For example, during a shopping spree. In 1966, Germany’s first pedestrian zone was built in the new large Bergstraße in Hamburg Altona.

Badua: “That was the consequence of the finding in the normal classic shopping street that shopping is no longer possible. Car traffic has such a strong presence, there is no more room for pedestrians to go shopping. So you need your own new street form for this shopping spree, which you have just created with the pedestrian zone.”

Mass motorization did not stop at the numerous Hamburg bridges, landmarks of the Hanseatic city.

Badua: “In the past, bridges were actually meeting places. were places where you could see from down and look at the city in different perspectives. They were specially marked by certain architectural forms, lighting, etc. And after the war, bridges mercilessly became part of these new roads.”

New icons of progress came to the cities: for example, the gas stations. Innovatively designed buildings of post-war modernism in bright colours and with ludicrous flat roof constructions. In front of it, the brightly coloured signs of the oil multinationals were enthroned.

Badua: “So in the 50s, 60s there were about three to four times as many gas stations as there are today. This means that petrol stations were also much more present in the cityscape than they are today. This term of the large filling station was also coined in the 50s. From today’s point of view, they were not that big. But at that time it was called a large petrol station. And so a leap forward was implied. You were who again.”

Today, cars with noise and stench should get out of the city centers. Stephan Feige, coordinator of the Hamburg Architecture Summer, sums up Europe-wide. In the past, you could win elections if you promised people a motorway feeder road, he says. Today, such promises would immediately call citizens’ initiatives on the scene. But at that time there were other priorities.

Feige: “It meant being able to drive into the countryside at the weekend. Regardless of public transport or the soles of one’s own shoes, it meant simply getting to work in the dry. And after the privations of the post-war period, the Second World War, of course, it was something that meant the future. You had a future ahead of you. They didn’t want to look into the past. And that included mobility, the freedom that had been gained through the car. And that was social consensus.”

But the car is indispensable today. On the contrary: instead of fuel-saving VW Beetles, three-ton monsters are now on the road in cities. Desert-ready road giants with four-wheel drive with which mom drives to the kindergarten and the bakery around the corner. But there are signs that people are rethinking, says Jürgen Bönig:

“What our exhibition wants is simply the discussion about its use. How do we use the car in the city to drive. And the alternatives that exist, i.e. to make more public transport and alternative offers that you will find bicycles at the stations or cars that are rental cars. That’s certainly something you should do.”