Hamburg becomes first German city to ban trucks and older diesel cars

Move follows court ruling that cities breaching EU air quality limits must take action

Hamburg will make history on Thursday as it imposes the first inner-city ban on trucks and older diesel cars, to improve air quality in Germany’s second city.

About 100 signs have been erected on two streets – one banning cars and trucks, and the other older diesel trucks.

The move is the first practical response to a German court ruling in February that cities in breach of EU air quality limits must take more radical steps.

It is also the most drastic aftershock from the 2015 admission by Volkswagen in the US that it had used software to rig diesel engine emissions to appear cleaner than they were.


The car company is still fighting legal action in Europe and has since been joined by other leading German companies accused of defrauding their customers.

The Hamburg ban – likely to be followed by other German cities later this year – will exclude all cars with engines below the 2014 Euro 6 emissions standard from two streets. The ban does not apply to residents of the streets but commuters are braced for heavy traffic on Thursday. Just one third of Hamburg cars meet the newer, cleaner emission standards, according to official data.

Attacked the bans

Car companies and members of chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have attacked the bans as draconian, saying traffic will simply find new routes.

Meanwhile environmental groups, demanding the Merkel administration force car companies to carry out engine fixes at their expense, say the Hamburg ban does not go far enough.

Car experts have dismissed the ban as window-dressing from politicians afraid to take on the powerful car lobby.

"Individual vehicle bans are nonsense because they improve the air quality in streets affected while increasing them elsewhere," said Mr Michael Schrekcenberg, a transport expert at University Duisburg-Essen.

Like other German cities, Hamburg has investigated other measures to improve air quality – in particular a new, cleaner public transport fleet – but said they saw no way around the ban.

“As environment authorities we are responsible for air quality and it’s our responsibility to make sure our citizens don’t get ill from pollution,” said Mr Björn Marzahn, spokesman for Hamburg’s state environment ministry.

Cap nitrogen dioxide

Hamburg is one of about 70 German cities that fall short of EU air quality limits which cap nitrogen dioxide at 40 micro grams per cubic metre. The looming ban has divided Hamburg residents, with not everyone welcoming the prospect of cleaner air.

“We’ll see how important clean air is to residents when the supermarkets can’t get their deliveries in time,” said Björn Binninger, a resident of the Altona district where one diesel ban applies.

Meanwhile German courier companies have joined forces in Berlin to launch a pilot project to improve air quality – and ease traffic jams. DHL, DPD, Hermes and other operators will now deliver parcels to a central depot in eastern Berlin by truck, from where they will be distributed to customers in a 2km radius by cargo bike.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin