But the past still reverberates through this German capital. Driving a rented Trabant with 254,000 miles on its odometer on a recent fall evening brought into sharper focus the seismic forces pent up and then unleashed by the Berlin Wall and its subsequent fall, which started 30 years ago this month.
One thing immediately apparent was its convoluted nature. Far from a straight line through the city, it curved, meandered and zigzagged for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Drive around the area near Brandenburg Gate, which President Ronald Reagan used as the backdrop of his 1987 imploration of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall," and you're bound to cross the tracks of the wall a half-dozen times.
Further, the spartan condition of the Trabant and its status as a dubious icon hint at the dire shortfall in automotive production in the waning years of the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany.
By today's standards, the wonky gearshift embedded in the dashboard and the belching fumes that practically overwhelm the driver in a matter of minutes make it a near-untenable form of transportation. It was easy to wonder whether pedestrians were gawking at the Trabi because of its historic status or because they were curious to see if it would fall to shambles at a stoplight.
But in its heyday, the vehicle was in limited supply in East Germany, heightening demand to levels inconceivable in the West. It wasn't uncommon for the waiting list for the Trabants, made by VEB Sachsenring, to hover around 12 years, creating a phenomenon in which used cars that could be bought soon were more valuable than spots on a waiting list for new cars.
Estimated wait times spiraled to 40 years in the late 1980s, according to "The Vehicle Of Desire: The Trabant, the Wartburg and the End of the GDR," a 1997 white paper written by the University of California's Jonathan Zatlin. It was a shortage that was one catalyst for the fall of the wall.
Scarcity "laid the foundations for precisely those social inequalities it loudly proclaimed it had abolished," he wrote. When government officials conceded the wait time had ballooned to four decades, the announcement was met with "growing incomprehension and increasing criticism from the public."
Within months, Zatlin writes, images of Trabants streaming through Brandenburg Gate were televised across the globe. For the city, it marked the end of one transportation era and the beginning of another.