News from Berlin

Mapping Berlin's Transit System

August 05th, 2014

News from Berlin – Throughout the Cold War Berlin’s transit system acted as a stark reminder of the division within the city. A recreation of a rare 1980 East German S-Bahn map by University of Essex psychology professor and designer Max Roberts has thrown new light onto the often bizarre history of transit mapping within the city and sparked new interest into the social and historical value these maps can portray.

The city’s extensive U-Bahn ("Untergrundbahn”, “underground railway”) and S-Bahn (“Stadtschnellbahn”, “city rapid railway”) carry almost 1.4 million people daily and, true to their original goal, have alleviated congestion within the city taking 122.2km (76 million) of car journeys off the road in annually. Yet 25 years after their reunification the two systems are still not completely synchronized, the fault lies not with their respective systems but in the often arbitrary and severe ways in which they were divided in the wake of the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

After the Second World War, the division of Berlin saw the control of the two systems also divided, between the Western powers, who administered the U-Bahn and the Soviet run S-Bahn. This was due to the layout of the respective systems, with the S-Bahn extending out from hubs at Alexanderplatz and Ostbahnhof into the countryside it naturally became the sole domain of the GDR. Whilst the mostly centrally located U-Bahn fell largely within West Berlin and therefore fell under the control of the Western powers.

The key stations that fell on the wrong side of the city became symbols of the divide, none more so than Friedrichstraße which acted as a checkpoint between East and West Berlin. The station was divided into two physically separate areas, one for eastern and one for western travellers. Although the station lay within East Berlin western passengers could transfer between S-Bahn and U-Bahn lines without passing through border checks, although they could also enter the East at the station provided their papers were in order.

The maps that show this divide are valuable tools in helping us to understand the political mood of the time, both in East and West Germany. The two sets of maps created show a growing disconnect from their neighbours, with the route on the other side of the wall existing only as a thin veiled presence mirroring the lack of knowledge both sets of inhabitants had about life on the other side of the wall. The S-Bahn maps in particular show this disconnect, culminating in the 1980 map Professor Roberts has recreated. Favouring aesthetics over practicality, the map shows West Berlin as a grey bubble surrounded by the colour of the GDR and is emotive of the propaganda of the age.

A map does not simply show the world as it is, it shows the beliefs and prejudices present in the mind of its designer. The transit maps of Berlin during the Cold War years illustrate this, they are a physical manifestation of the increasing unknowability of life for those on opposing sides of the wall. In the same way the current transit map, displaying the once again full connected ring of the S-Bahn is symbolic of the newly reunited city and the country as a whole.

News from Berlin – by Andrew Keogh - Berlin Global