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Campaigners seek vote to make Berlin center largely car-free

Campaigners in Berlin are launching a drive to collect signatures for a vote on making the heart of the German capital largely car-free.

Backers of the plan said Wednesday that banning most cars from the city center would improve quality of life, improve road safety and help Germany achieve its climate goals. The measure would go hand-in-hand with greater investment in public transport, they said.

The group, which isn't affiliated with any political party, wants to collect 20,000 signatures next year to force regional lawmakers to debate the idea.

If the Berlin state assembly doesn't support the plan, campaigners say they will try to collect a further 170,000 signatures for a referendum, which could take place in 2023.

Several other European cities, including Paris and London, have introduced restrictions on cars in recent years, either by taxing heavily polluting vehicles or declaring ‘car-free days.’

The Berlin plan would go further, banning all private vehicles except those used by disabled residents or businesses from the area within the city's railway ring.

Campaigners say this would reduce car traffic by two-thirds and free up large amounts of space currently used to park cars, which on average remain stationary for 23 hours a day.

The proposal is likely to become one of the main topics of debate ahead of regional elections in Berlin next fall, and could run into fierce resistance in Germany, home to major automakers.

Rent activists recently managed to force a proposal to expropriate large corporate landlords onto the state assembly’s agenda, fueling debate about affordable housing in the city.

Berlin's center-left Social Democrats, who narrowly won the 2016 regional election but have been struggling in recent polls, reject the plan for a car-free city center, while their Green allies support it.