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:

Is 20 plenty? The evidence for lower speed limits

20mph

Image from Flickr user Edinburgh Greens via Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week (18-25 May) it’s Walk to School Week – where parents and children are encouraged to leave the car at home and experience the benefits of walking to and from school.

The campaign is particularly important given recent evidence which suggests that the number of children who walk to school is falling. The most recent Department for Transport National Travel Survey found that only 42% of children walked to school regularly in 2013, compared to 47% in 1995/97. Indeed, Britain has one of the lowest levels of children walking or cycling to school in Europe.

A recent YouGov survey of 1,000 parents of five- to 11-year olds in Great Britain found that speeding traffic was the main reason that parents no longer let their children walk to school. In particular, 39% felt that school-run traffic was dangerous. Almost two-thirds reported that they would like to see car-free zones outside both primary and secondary schools, as well as 20 mph speed limits in surrounding areas.

20 mph limits and zones

The introduction of 20 mph speed limits and zones has received widespread interest of late, with a number of large schemes, such as the one planned in Edinburgh, capturing the headlines. The Edinburgh scheme is particularly notable for its scale. It covers over 80% of the city’s roads – effectively making 20 mph the default speed for all of its urban areas. Implementation is due to start in late 2015.

At the other end of the UK, the London Borough of Hackney has this week begun the rollout of its own 20 mph scheme, through which more than 99% of the borough’s roads will become subject to 20 mph limits by October 2015.

The Edinburgh and Hackney schemes join a host of others across the UK, including those in inner London, Liverpool, York, Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton, Oxford and Glasgow.

Support for further implementation

Numerous campaign and road safety groups have called for the greater implementation of 20 mph zones and limits across the UK, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Sustrans, the Campaign for Better Transport, CTC – the national cycling charity, 20’s Plenty for Us, The Slower Speeds Initiative and the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

The UK Government have also shown support for the wider implementation of 20 mph zones and limits. In 2013, they published revised guidance to make it easier for local authorities to implement 20 mph limits and zones in their areas, and earlier this year, new guidance which further supports 20 mph limits was published by Transport Scotland.

There is also clear evidence of the public’s desire for lower speed limits. A recent YouGov survey found that the majority of respondents supported the introduction of 20 mph speed limits in residential streets (65% support or strongly support) and busy shopping areas and busy streets (72%). Improved road safety and children’s safety were the key reasons for this, along with other reasons – such as making our streets more pleasant to live in, encouraging more walking and cycling, reducing noise and improving the quality of life.

The YouGov survey echoes the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, which found 68% of people to be in favour of 20 mile per hour speed limits in residential streets.

Talking of the Hackney scheme, Cllr Feryal Demirci, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Sustainability, Hackney Council neatly summarises the anticipated benefits of 20 mph zones:

“We strongly believe this 20 mph rollout will be better for everyone. It will mean a safer, calmer and more liveable neighbourhoods for all residents, leading to more walking, cycling and playing outside, which in turn will have a positive impact on health and the community.”

Evidence of the benefits

But does the evidence support these anticipated benefits?

One of the most commonly cited benefit of lower speed limits is improved road safety, resulting from a reduction in the number and severity of collisions. There is widespread evidence that this is the case – for example, research published in the BMJ in 2009 concluded that 20 mph zones were effective measures for reducing road injuries and deaths. Specifically, their introduction was associated with a 41.9% reduction in road casualties, with the effect being greatest in younger children and for the category of killed or seriously injured casualties.

Similar findings have been reported elsewhere, for example, in a review of evidence reported to the London Road Safety Unit, in research by the DfT and by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research.

There is also evidence that lower speed limits may help to tackle health inequalities. This is because children and young adults are more at risk of road traffic accidents within poorer localities than in richer urban neighbourhoods. Indeed, in January 2014, Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, went as far as to claim that implementing 20 mph speed limits was the main way in which local authorities could effectively improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

Similarly, research published in the Journal of Public Health in 2014 reported that targeting 20 mph zones in deprived areas may be beneficial. It also concluded that “20 mph zones and limits were effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries”.

Improved public health is another often cited benefit of lower speed limits. Evidence from Bristol and Edinburgh demonstrates that 20 mph zones do indeed encourage increased levels of physical activity, including walking and cycling, and there is also evidence that they improve resident quality of life, through increased opportunities for social interaction and less noise and air pollution.

The reduced levels of pollution also mean that lower speed limits can be better for the environment.

Finally, there is also some evidence that 20 mph zones may result in increased local economic activity – with improved walking environments having many potential benefits for local business. Research conducted by Living Streets in London also found that pedestrians tended to spend more than those arriving by car.

Driver concerns and attitudes

Despite the evidence in their favour, 20 mph zones are not always welcomed with open arms. There remain a number of concerns about the implementation of 20 mph zones, including fears that they may lead to increased levels of congestion, increased carbon emissions, suffer from a lack of enforcement, increase journey times, and increase emergency response times.

Most of these concerns have been countered by research evidence; however, attitudinal barriers remain. In an analysis of a YouGov survey of public attitudes towards 20 mph zones, Professor Alan Tapp of UWE Bristol, reports that a sizable minority of people (31%) claim that ‘If a 20 mph speed limit is introduced, I may not stick to it’. He also points out that 49% felt that ‘It is just too difficult to stay at 20 mph’ and almost a third of people (30%) thought that 20 mph is an example of a nanny state.

The way forward

So despite the progress that has been made, there is clearly still some way to go before 20 mph limits and zones become a fully accepted part of UK towns and cities. Implementing more 20 mph limits is only the start – it seems that there is also a need for local authorities to tackle the negative perceptions of 20 mph zones held by many drivers in order to ensure that 20 mph limits are adhered to in practice.

Sharing evidence of the positive benefits of 20 mph zones and demonstrating that many of the main concerns associated with them are ill-founded is likely to play an important part in encouraging more positive attitudes, changing driver behaviour, and in turn, make streets safer and more enjoyable for children and adults alike.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further information on improving road safety. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

Addressing health inequalities: five practical approaches for local authorities (Perspectives in Public Health, 2014)

Reducing unintentional injuries on the roads among children and young people under 25 years (Public Health England, 2014)

Road safety and public health (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 2014)

Achieving safety, sustainability and health goals in transport (Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS), 2014)

Unlimited aspiration for a calmer city (speed limits) (Local Transport Today, 2011)

Sign of the times (20 mph speed limits in Portsmouth) (Parking Review, 2010)

Review of 20 mph zone and limit implementation in England (Department for Transport, 2009)

Travel planning for greener, cleaner journeys

Parking for bicyclesOur latest “In Focus” briefing looks at travel planning. You can download the briefing for free from The Knowledge Exchange website

by James Carson

A travel plan is a package of measures aimed at promoting greener, cleaner travel choices and reducing reliance on the car. The measures can include incentives to encourage walking and cycling, promotion of public transport and the development of car-sharing clubs. Continue reading

Google’s driverless car may succeed where Sinclair failed

by James Carson

Readers old enough to remember the Sinclair C5 might have experienced a déjà vu moment at the news that Google is developing a driverless car. As with the C5 scepticism seemed to surround the story, with followers of the Financial Times Twitterfeed giving full vent to their doubts:

Continue reading