Berliners find foul issue of filthy city air is a real curse

German city trying everything to dodge emissions order banning older diesel vehicles

Snow falls on a Berlin thoroughfare at the weekend. With little notice, a new speed limit regime has been imposed on many Berlin streets. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Snow falls on a Berlin thoroughfare at the weekend. With little notice, a new speed limit regime has been imposed on many Berlin streets. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

 

If you’re visiting Berlin and want to hear some really filthy German, I recommend taking a taxi ride from anywhere to anywhere.

Within minutes the driver will be swearing like a sailor, but there’s no cause for alarm: you’re unlikely to be driving any faster than 30km/h.

“It’s utter madness,” said driver Omar as we glided along an empty street at a gentle canter. Spouting obscenities, eyes drifting from the road to his phone and alternative routes, he added: “On some stretches now it’s 30, then it’s 50, then 30 again. A friend of mine was caught doing 40 instead of 30 and got a penalty point.”

With little notice, a new speed limit regime has been imposed on many Berlin thoroughfares. Now, someone in a rush may think their taxi driver is determined to make you miss your train. In fact he is making an enforced contribution to cleaner Berlin air – so the theory goes, at least.

Like other German cities, Berlin is trying every trick it can to circumvent a court order banning older diesel vehicles from its streets. One such desperate measure is a pilot project of 30km/h speed limits around pollution black spots.

It’s unlikely to satisfy the courts, or the DUH environmental lobby group. After years of fruitless battles, revelations that diesel vehicle emissions are filthier than claimed handed the DUH the proof it needed that German cities are flouting EU emissions norms imposed a decade ago.

From Hamburg to Stuttgart, Germany’s cosiest of cartels – its carmakers and politicians – are struggling with a mess of their own making.

But separating many Germans from their cars is like separating some Americans from their guns: something best considered by politicians with no long-term career ambitions.

Fine diesel particulates

Officials are hamstrung by their own evidence collected from roadside measuring stations, showing city air heaving with fine diesel particulates and nitrogen dioxide well beyond EU limits. This pollution causes increased mortality by respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as exacerbating allergies, asthma, bronchitis and related infections.

The European Environment Agency suggests about 500,000 European deaths annually – including 1,200 in Ireland – can be linked to this kind of pollution.

But in recent days, the car lobby and leading German doctors have begun to fight back. Prof Dieter Köhler, a leading lung doctor and former president of the German Association of Pneumology (DGP), issued a public letter, signed by 111 colleagues, claiming that research into diesel-related pollution is flawed.

German measuring stations are placed closer to the roads than in other EU countries, critics say, while Prof Köhler says the data collected is processed in a “very one-sided” fashion – “always with the goal that particulate and NOx must be harmful”.

His open letter calling for a new study, cheered on by the car cartel, has confused German drivers. They are already reeling from a proposal to impose 130km/hour speed limits on Germany’s Autobahn network.

That idea came from a working group exploring ways to meet 2030 climate goals, given that Germany will miss its 2020 promises. But federal transport minister Andreas Scheuer from Bavaria, home to BMW, was quick to dismiss the preliminary idea as “against any human sense”.

Contradicting him was Green Party politician Cem Özdemir, joking: “In Germany I know that an idea like this is like state-imposed potency inhibitors on men.”

Whatever happens in Germany’s diesel debate, it’s increasingly clear the wind has turned on the internal combustible engine.

With further court rulings this year, Stuttgart and Frankfurt have banned older, Euro-4 diesels from their city centres. Cologne must follow from April, Berlin from June.

After seven decades of car-is-king city planning, the German capital has pushed the automobile down the food-chain. In future, city planning decisions will prioritise all other street and road users – pedestrians, cyclists, public transport – and drivers last.

That could endanger Berlin street sport, popular on balmy summer evenings, when western thoroughfares are transformed into boy racer test routes.

Sipping a beer on a Ku’damm terrace, you can be sure to catch 20-something men roaring past in Maseratis and Porsches, without a police car in sight. But whenever the weather warms up again, it’ll be interesting to see how they fare at 30km/h.

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