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This month, Hamburg will become the first German city to impose a ban on diesel vehicles to fight pollution. Local leaders say they want the city to comply with European limits on diesel emissions and to reduce toxins that health officials say kill thousands of people in Germany every year. But the impending ban has some critics accusing the city of playing a shell game. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This busy thoroughfare in western Hamburg is where officials say nearly 6,000 vehicles a day will soon be banned, at least on the third of a mile that would take them past this air quality measuring station. It is located on the median of Max-Brauer-Allee, where the level of nitrogen oxides are often quite high.
DAGMAR GOMER: (Speaking German).
NELSON: Dagmar Gomer, who is in charge of the monitoring sites, says it's too early to know whether cutting traffic here will curb Hamburg's pollution. But Charlotte Lill, who lives down the street, is convinced it won't.
CHARLOTTE LILL: They take the pollution to other streets where they don't record anything. Do you think that's the right thing to do? I don't think so. The pollution still is here. They need to do something with the cars. There's no other solution.
NELSON: Lill says the problem is Germany is too economically dependent on its auto industry.
LILL: So they are afraid that the jobs may go down. The thing is that you shouldn't lose your aim. You shouldn't, you know, forget about the pollution to save jobs.
NELSON: The 71-year-old retiree and many of her neighbors have spent years trying to get traffic banned from downtown Hamburg. They want their government to encourage people to leave their cars at home by providing better public transit.
STEFAN MEYER: (Speaking German).
NELSON: Hamburg master painter Stefan Meyer also opposes the impending diesel ban. But his solution is for the city to improve the flow of traffic rather than get rid of it.
MEYER: (Speaking German).
NELSON: "Traffic has been stop and go here since the city established bus-only lanes," he tells me, as we drive in his newer diesel SUV, which would be exempt from the ban. That's not the case with his fleet of older diesel vans, and he worries how that will affect his business.
MEYER: (Speaking German).
NELSON: "German cities are using diesel drivers as a scapegoat," he says. He drops me off in Ottensen, a trendy, multi-ethnic neighborhood in Hamburg. This is where traffic diverted by the ban will end up, says resident Heike Janssen.
HEIKE JANSSEN: That's ridiculous because it's so easy to block certain streets. It's not a big solution. And Hamburg is not doing something for a better, modern traffic. Hamburg is far behind.
NELSON: Janssen says she is not unsympathetic to drivers because she is one. But she'd like to switch her commute to her bicycle, if only it were safer.
JANSSEN: We need to have better bicycle routes because it's very dangerous to drive the bicycle in Hamburg.
NELSON: City officials say they know the impending diesel ban has its critics, but that it's the best they can do for now. They say a more comprehensive ban and other remedies require intervention from Germany's federal government. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Hamburg.
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