Stuttgart, capital of the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, is a hub of German engineering. Carmakers Daimler and Porsche as well as one of the biggest automotive suppliers, Bosch, are based in an around the city which is considered one of Germany’s most innovative places.
But Stuttgart also has another, less appealing record as the city with the highest air pollution in Germany.
Both particulate pollution and nitrogen oxides measured in Stuttgart are much higher than in other cities around Germany. Particulate pollution crossed the threshold set by the European Union on 63 days last year. Anything more than 35 days is considered harmful for people’s health.
By comparison, not a single U.S. city crosses the pollution threshold.
The pollution problem is not new, but it’s more relevant for the city than ever: the German environmental group DUH recently started suing cities that violate the E.U. standards. In late 2016, a court ordered Düsseldorf in western Germany to halt car traffic if air quality doesn’t improve dramatically.
The city appealed the verdict, and the case is currently pending at the Federal Administrative Court, the supreme court for administrative disputes. If the verdict stands, it will apply to all cities in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Düsseldorf is located.
“Even just discussing a ban on driving is damaging to Baden-Württemberg as a hub for the automotive industry.”
Understandably, that makes Stuttgart’s mayor Fritz Kuhn nervous. “2017 is [Stuttgart’s] last chance to prove that we can reach our goal without a ban,” he said. If the city again counts more than 35 days with too much air pollution this year, “there’s no way around traffic restrictions,” he added.
Germany’s major cities have already introduced color-coded emissions stickers. Only cars with green stickers – usually those with gasoline engines or modern, low-emissions diesel engines – are allowed into the city centers. Drivers without stickers or with red or yellow stickers are fined.
In Stuttgart, Mr. Kuhn and state governor Winfried Kretschmann, both members of the Green Party, would like to add another color to the stickers: blue for only those diesel cars with extremely low emissions.
But that’s not their decision to take. The Federal Transportation Ministry is the body responsible for this sort of legislation, and it’s currently not interested in regulating traffic even more.
It’s hard to miss the irony in the city’s misery: Stuttgart, home to Germany’s automotive industry, might ban cars because Stuttgart, the only major German city to be ruled by the Green Party, suffers from off-the charts pollution.
Most locals have a simple explanation for their city’s poor performance: it’s location in a small valley. Surrounded by hills that hinder fresh air circulation, the city resembles a cauldron. Cars bring in pollution through emissions and tire abrasions, but the cauldron won’t let the pollution escape.
But that’s only part of the truth. Too many locals in and around Stuttgart rely on their cars for transport. “Like many German cities, Stuttgart was built largely as a car-friendly city,” said Mr. Kuhn. Streets are wide, parking abundant. And while alternative forms of transportation are being subsidized and promoted, everyone’s only on board as long as the new bike path doesn’t mean the car lane becomes narrower.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kuhn is banking on citizens’ cooperation – and reason – in his latest experiment to bring down pollution levels.
Whenever weather conditions are worsening in Stuttgart, the city now proclaims “pollution alarm.” With a whole bundle of incentives, Mr. Kuhn wants to persuade people to leave their cars at home, and only use their wood-fired ovens if they really need them. In exchange, subways and trains run more often on those days, tickets only cost half the normal price and the prices for using the city’s ecar-sharing service are lower.
It’s a political tightrope walk for Mr. Kuhn. Will residents be happy to join in the efforts for cleaner air, especially when the price is right? Or will they feel patronized for being told what to do, or not to do?
The automotive firms are doing very little to shift transportation away from the personal car to lower traffic and pollution levels.
Dieter Rosskopf, head of the ADAC automobile club in Baden-Württemberg, said society needs to change its attitude. “Even passionate drivers need to realize that there’s no point in taking the car into the city,” he said. After all, Stuttgart doesn’t just have the highest pollution, but also the longest traffic jams in Germany.
That’s quite the statement from an organization that largely lives off its car repair services for drivers across the country.
Bosch, Daimler and Porsche, the largest employers in the region and potential drivers behind a shift to more environmentally friendly transport, are less outspoken.
In fact, Bosch and Daimler refused to answer questions at all when contacted by WirtschaftsWoche.
The companies contribute considerably to the state capital’s traffic volume. Daimler alone employs 80,000 people in factories in and around the state capital that are basically only reachable by car. Thousands of suppliers go back and forth between plants every day. And then there are the countless test drives, mostly on public roads in the area.
Yet the automotive firms do very little to shift transportation away from the personal car to lower traffic and pollution levels.
Since January 2017, Daimler staff can get some co-pay for monthly tickets to the public transport system. At other large German companies, that’s been a given for decades. Daimler also promised to stop test drives on high-pollution days.
Bosch arranged for their company ID to work as a public transport ticket, but only on bad-air days. The companies seem eager not to discourage their employees from driving any more than necessary.
And locals’ insistence on taking their own car even when particulates are on the rise seems counterproductive considering that they’re the ones facing the health drawbacks of high pollution.
“Most people don’t consider particulate pollution dangerous because they don’t associate it with a particular illness,” said Tobias Stöger, a biologist at the Helmhotzentrum research institute in Munich. Mr. Stöger, who specializes in lung biology, recently published a study that showed how pollution from diesel engines travels through the bloodstream into the lungs and causes inflammation.
That causes problems for asthmatics, but also drives up the risk for heart attacks.
The researcher said despite these findings, most people don’t fear particulates because they can’t see them in their daily lives. “Diesel engines don’t produce dark emission clouds anymore,” he said, adding that that causes people to think that emissions have gone down.
Instead of concrete health issues, Stuttgart locals and politicians seem more concerned with more abstract threats. “Even just discussing a ban on driving is damaging to Baden-Württemberg as a hub for the automotive industry,” said Thomas Bareiss, expert for energy policy with the conservative CDU party.
He suggested installing sprinkler systems at crossings where traffic is particularly bad. The water will bind the particulates. The liberal FDP proposed covering the walls of houses along the main streets to filter the air.
These ideas might be able to lower pollution a bit in the short term but, almost in the tradition of the VW emissions scandal, doesn’t have a solution for the long-term problem of emissions that are simply too high.
Mayor Mr. Kuhn has already declared “pollution alarm” on 17 days in January 2017. On all 17 days, his appeals to leave the car at home weren’t heard, and Stuttgart violated the E.U. pollution threshold. “Stuttgart is usually an intelligent city,” he said. It’s high time the city lives up to that image.
A version of this article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: email@example.com