In January, Susanne Jallow, a resident of Stuttgart, Germany, returned to her home in the densely populated neighborhood of Neckartor and checked the air pollution sensor hanging outside her window. Around 100,000 cars pass through the road that surrounds Neckartor each day; Jallow, lately, had been noticing herself coughing more. The sensor showed the amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air was reaching 300 micrograms per cubic meter–six times the E.U. safe limit. Jallow got together with neighbor Peter Erben and decided to sue Stuttgart’s mayor.
Data from the air sensors–provided to Stuttgart residents through a citizen-led open-data initiative called Luftdaten–supplied enough evidence to bring a case. The charges? Bodily injury with death as a consequence, and “lack of assistance.”
Stuttgart is a cauldron of pollution. Hemmed in on three sides by mountains, parts of the city are among the mostly densely populated in Europe. Streets are narrow and flanked by tall buildings, and the city is home to Daimler, Porsche, and the truck-and-bus manufacturer NeoPlan. Heavy industry contributes to both extra pollution and a lack of political will to act against cars.
Regional government is, of course, against doing anything to curb pollution that might upset Porsche and the other businesses in town. Speaking to local newspaper Stuttgart Zeitung, Thomas Bareiss, policy spokesperson for the Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy, said that he is against a driving ban: “43% of the export from Baden-Württemberg comes from the automobile sector,” he said, showing that he considers luxury car exports to be more important than the health of German citizens.
In Bareiss’ view, driving is not to blame for pollutants. “Fine dust pollution comes from heaters, coal-fired power plants, shipping and over 50% of fine dust in cities comes from outside the city limits,” he claimed, despite studies like this one which find that 25% of urban air pollution comes from traffic.
Instead of curbing vehicle use, Bareiss wants to install smarter traffic lights to keep cars moving, outfit buses with low-emission engines, and wait until people replace their cars with new vehicles that pollute less.
Not all politicians are so clearly against cleaning up the air, but even the good ones might need a prod in a place like Stuttgart. It’s not yet clear how local government will respond to the lawsuit, but the residents’ efforts are already drawing attention to political inaction in this area. “We wanted to highlight the bureaucratic apathy of the city administration,” Erben told the Guardian. “There is a pressing need for more proactive measures to combat air pollution. The existing ones are inadequate.”
For coughing Stuttgart residents, relief might be on the way regardless of the results of the suit: Julia Pieper, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport for the state of Baden Württemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, told The Guardian that traffic restrictions are being considered for next year. Given that Stuttgart has already experienced 25 days this year when air pollution has surpassed permissible E.U. limits (they’re allowed 35 days), regulations are looking necessary.