Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality:

Telecare in the UK: lessons from Barcelona

By Rebecca Jackson

Telecare is technology to help people live independently, usually in their own homes, for longer. Usually delivered as part of a package of care, telecare devices can include things like: bed sensors, to detect if someone is out of bed at an unusual time; fall sensors; medication reminders; and alerts on screens or over loudspeakers. Such devices have led telecare to be heralded as a new dawn in patient-centred, independent living.  However, despite initiatives  to drive its application forward, not everyone in the UK is convinced about the benefits of telecare.

Practitioners and carers are sceptical about the potential of replacing traditional care with digital models to save money and the impact that this could have on standards of care. In addition, many patients themselves are uncertain about the use of telecare and digital health solutions, with many who have telecare systems within their homes choosing to continue to interact with primary and home care services in the same way as before. Much of the academic and expert-led research and evaluation of telecare programmes in the UK by organisations such as the Nuffield Trust and the Kings Fund has found little to no improvement in service, reduction in cost or reduction in workload for care teams in areas where telecare has been deployed.

While telecare in the UK appears to have stalled, elsewhere digital health solutions are not only successfully integrated into traditional care models, but are having a positive impact on the people in receipt of care, and reducing the burden of work on care providers.

Lessons from Barcelona

In Spain, the law has guaranteed access to telecare since 2006. Economic austerity has led to individual local authorities in Spain being given control over their budgets and therefore their provision of telecare. The approach in Barcelona has been highlighted as an example of best practice in telecare.

The system there – a cooperative venture between an independent provider and the local authority – sees carers take a proactive approach to telecare. The system does not just monitor and provide assistance in times of distress, but proactively engages with service users at regular intervals to help carers provide reassurance and build relationships.

As well as the emergency measures, such as fall sensors (typically the primary use of telecare in the UK), calls are made to check up on service users, provide reassurance, deliver general public health information and to mark important occasions, like birthdays. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which in turn can lead to better general health and wellbeing.

Calls can also be made to highlight important information, such  as weather warnings; safety alerts and local events which the service users may wish to attend. These calls are backed up by visits from the care team, who work for the telecare provider. These visits supplement visits from municipal care and social workers and the two teams communicate and share information via digital platforms.

Digital healthcare as an enabler

The case of Barcelona shows us how digital healthcare solutions, and more specifically telecare, can be used as an enabler – a tool to allow the local authority to pursue a joined up and preventative approach to healthcare which has positive benefits for recipients.

Such approaches could also have a significant impact on the UK’s 3.8 million unpaid carers. Telecare has the potential to reduce some of the burden and stress of caring for a relative, which in turn can have positive effects on the health of the person in receipt of care. It can also  form an effective part of reablement programmes – supporting people as they leave hospital or return to independent living.

However the approach to delivering telecare in Britain is as much about culture as it is about the technological infrastructure. Using telecare as part of a preventative, person-centred approach should produce better outcomes. In this sense, implementation of telecare in the UK still lags behind other countries. Key lessons could also be learnt from programmes in Norway and the Netherlands in relation to telecare in dementia settings.

Generally, the targeting of telecare services also differs – in the UK it tends to be aimed at elderly people with complex and diverse needs, while in Norway and the Netherlands the focus has shifted to those suffering from chronic illnesses.

Local solutions

In the UK, some local authorities have been experimenting with digital healthcare, although local authority budget cuts have meant that in many cases these have been cut back to focus delivery on the most vulnerable clients.

The lessons in digital healthcare that Britain can learn from places like Barcelona could be key to the successful roll out of digital healthcare solutions in the future. The Barcelona example highlights the enabling role that telecare can play in joining up health and social care and promoting a more preventative approach to healthcare.

Opportunities to develop telecare strategies and deliver them in partnership, as in the Barcelona model, show that it cannot be delivered in isolation, or be used as a replacement for existing carer-led services. Instead telecare has the potential to be a supporting tool to ensure effective care outcomes. It could also help care services in Britain to tackle the increasing demand of an ageing population.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on social care:

Supercommuting: is it worth it?

crowd rush on the london tube

By Rebecca Jackson

In recent years there has been a surge in the number of people in the UK being classed as ‘supercommuters’ – people who travel more than 90 minutes to work each day. And figures from the TUC published last week suggest that over 3 million of us now have long daily commutes of two hours or more, a rise of 72% in the last decade.

Rising rent, the London-centric nature of the British economy and the desire to maintain a healthy work-life balance have all been cited as factors which have contributed to this mass commute which millions of us, myself included, go through every day.

Reliance on commuting for ‘better job’ opportunities

In a recent survey it was found that accountants have the longest average commute, at 75 minutes, with IT software developers next at 65 minutes. The shortest average commute belongs to those who work in the retail and leisure industries, who have commute times of between 20-30 minutes respectively.

A recent IPPR report suggested that commuting, or more specifically the lack of ability to commute, was resulting in many job-seekers remaining out of work. As a result, a reliance on commuting for ‘better jobs’ was limiting the growth of the British economy, particularly in areas outside of London.

Commuting, and the resulting inflexibility this gives many jobs, can also be a barrier to many women, particularly those with families or caring responsibilities, taking on roles which are higher paid or higher up the ‘corporate ladder’, including more senior roles in company structures and professions such as accountancy and law.

The costs of supercommuting

So how realistic is a ‘supercommute’ in terms of cost, and in terms of family life and commitments … and is it worth it?

I calculated the cost and time it would take to commute to London from 4 cities: Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and Barcelona (I chose Barcelona because I know someone who did it for a year!).

The scenario I used was for an individual who works full time in an office in the City of London, within walking distance of Liverpool Street Station. All prices shown are averages and will fluctuate depending on proximity to amenities, time of booking transport etc. This information also does not take into account the cost of living more generally, food, utilities, socialising etc.

Untitled 2*Average time, without excessive traffic or delays, for flights includes check in and transfer to Liverpool Street
** Northern Irish “Rates” are slightly different to council tax
*** For a 1 month Zone 1-6 Oyster card OR to fly from MAN; EDI; BFS; BCN to STN and get the Express to Liverpool Street, 3 days per week, returning each night.

The figures seem to show that cost wise, it’s true, supercommutes can save you money if travelling means that you can take a higher wage or better job.

Work-life balance

People who supercommute, while grateful for the better lifestyle it gives them and their families on days off, often highlight how long commutes, which often mean significantly longer working days, impact on their relationships, their health and require significantly more commitment and energy from them as individuals than a ‘normal 9-5 job’ would. An individual’s personal well-being can often be hugely affected by extreme commuting times.

Statistics have also shown that people who supercommute, who have a wife or partner who doesn’t commute with them, or doesn’t undertake a similar length of commute of their own, have a higher rate of divorce and/or separation. And those with children reported stressed and difficult relationships with them too.

Studies have also shown that its not all about the money, and that to equate monetary value to distance commuted, you would need to be offered a pay rise of 40% to compensate for the detriment caused in other areas of life by an extra hour’s commute.

Another factor influencing how realistic supercommuting is as an option for employees, is the willingness of the company, and the ability of the job, to be flexible. Many people who are interviewed, or used as successful case examples of supercomputing, work in jobs where they can work remotely for part or all of the time.

And as you can see in my example above, it is based on the understanding that those commuting from outside London are only doing so on a 3 day week basis, with a view that they would work remotely from home on the other two days. Not all jobs can facilitate this, and neither can all employees.

Is it worth it?

Supercommuting can, therefore, be a way to save money, and offer improved quality of life, enabling people to live closer to family or in the countryside. However it comes at a potential cost to social life and relationships, and to personal well-being in terms of physical and mental health.

Sadly it’s not all afternoon strolls or sangria weekends on a beach in Barcelona, although this can be part of it. It takes commitment to the job and the commute itself and a regular reassessment of the question of “is it actually worth it?”

And, unfortunately for many, supercommuting is no longer a choice, but a situation forced on workers by the state of the housing or employment markets.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Donna Gardiner’s post on remote working