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:

Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

The local prevention of terrorism

by Steven McGinty

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris there has been a renewed focus on preventing terrorism.  On a national level, the UK government has increased the defence budget by an extra £12 billion, and is expected to hold a vote on airstrikes in Syria. More locally, there has been fierce debate about looming police cuts, with the Muslim Council of Britain suggesting that it could harm trust with communities.

At the Knowledge Exchange, we recently received an Ask-a-Researcher request for information on the role and importance of local partners within the counter-terrorism and extremist space. We provided the member with a number of resources to support their work; but there was one that stood out.

Essential resource

The book was ‘The Local Prevention of Terrorism: Strategy and Practice in the Fight Against Terrorism by Joshua J. Skoczylis, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln, UK. It was published in September 2015 and appears to be a vital resource for UK policymakers and academics.

The book explores the UK government’s Prevent policy, a key strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) that focuses on stopping people becoming or supporting terrorism, as well as examining its impact on local communities.

Concepts and tensions affecting Prevent

In chapter 2, the key concepts are analysed that underpin CONTEST, and in particular the Prevent policy.  This involves looking at the idea of prevention, the relationship between Prevent and policing, and the relationship between communities and CONTEST.

An interesting point raised is that the narrative of CONTEST provides a powerful basis for which policies are based on. There is a critique of the phrase ‘international terrorism’ (often used in government strategies), with the author suggesting that the lines between international and local have been blurred, with terrorist attacks being carried out by local residents.

Prevent – an innovative counter terrorism strategy

One of the main arguments put forward is that the Prevent policy is an innovative approach to counter-terrorism. The author explains that Prevent occupies the ‘space somewhere in the middle, between extremism and violent extremism’. In essence, this space provides an area for honest engagement within communities, free from the security and intelligence community. This space allows local actors to be involved in the debate, including local authorities and Muslim organisations.

Delivering Prevent to Maybury Council

In the final chapters, the book reflects on Prevent’s impact on Maybury, a mill town in the north of England. Since 2007, several Prevent programmes have been delivered in the area, including Channel, an early intervention programme for young people vulnerable to be drawn into terrorism. Although, the majority have focused on community cohesion and awareness raising.

The book also discusses the findings of a report commissioned by Maybury Council into the Prevent policy. It highlights that the Prevent programme has been viewed as ‘divisive’ and has alienated members of the community that local agencies need to engage with. In particular, it suggests that focusing solely on Muslim communities, using surveillance measures, only breeds distrust.

The report also highlights the tension that exists between the national and the local delivery of Prevent. It explains however that Maybury Council have adapted their own policy to address local needs; although it’s noted that this may change as the government have introduced a more centralised administration process for Prevent funds.

Conclusions

At the end of the book, the author comes to several conclusions about the local delivery of Prevent. One of the main conclusions is that evaluation is crucial for establishing what policies and programmes are successful. It is important that an evidence base is developed and that good practice is shared amongst practitioners.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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A tale of five cities: night time transport infrastructure in global cities

By Rebecca Jackson

As London’s launch of its new night tube services is delayed, we compare night-time transport infrastructure in 5 cities and consider the importance of the night tube to allow London to maintain its status as one of the world’s great cities.

London is viewed, like most modern-day cities, as a 24-hour hub of activity, and supporters of the night tube have argued that we need 24- hour infrastructure to support it. The importance of the night tube on London’s night time economy has been heavily emphasised by supporters of the roll out. According to TfL, the night tube will create almost 2,000 new jobs and contribute £360m to the economy:

“Demand for a 24-hour Tube service is clear – late night Tube use has increased at double the rate of day-time trips and Night Bus usage has risen by 173 per cent since 2000. There are already over half a million users of the Tube after 22:00 on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Under the plans for the night tube, services will run 24 hours over Friday and Saturday on five main tube lines: Jubilee, Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern and Central lines. Plans for further expansion are already in place.

But how does London compare with other world cities?

Many major world cities operate late running underground services, particularly at weekends. However when London eventually launches its night tube, it will become one of only seven cities to have ‘around the clock’ underground transportation, either in full or on particular days of the week. The other six are: Copenhagen, Berlin, Stockholm, Sydney, Chicago and New York.

That leaves many other major world cities with transport networks which do not reflect their ’24-hour’ reputations. Cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Paris have more limited night-time transport services but still effectively serve the inhabitants of some of the worlds biggest cities.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a highly developed and sophisticated public transport network which has made it the envy of city planners across the world. However it does not operate a 24 hour transport system, nor are there plans to introduce one.

Hong Kong’s public transport system is supported by 24- hour ferry services, buses, trams and moving public walkways to allow easy travel through the city although few of these run beyond midnight. Underground trains feature below ground 3G, colour coded stations to ease navigation of passengers and an integrated payment system in the form of an “Octopus” card. The equivalent of London’s “Oyster” card, it was the first of its kind in the world and can be used on all public transport in Hong Kong. Tickets cost an average of $14 HKD (£1.18).

New York

Hosting one of the largest underground train systems in the world, New York has been committed to offering 24 hour underground transportation since its first trains ran in 1904. It’s total track length spans the distance from Chicago to New York.

Recently they introduced a system which can email commuters details of a delayed journey to work, to justify lateness to employers; they also have an email alert system to inform passengers of delays on selected routes. An average equivalent Zone 1-6 fare in New York would cost $2.75 (£1.76) The London average is £5.10.

Paris

The second busiest subway system in Europe after Moscow, the Paris subway carries an average of 4.2 million passengers a day. Standard operating times are between 05:30am- 01:15am, except Friday, Saturday and nights before national holidays, when services run until 02:15.

There is contemplation in the French capital of whether to introduce a 24 hour service there – the success or failure of London’s scheme will undoubtedly impact on their decision. Paris metro fares are significantly lower than those in London, with tickets in the region of €1.80 (£1.28).

Copenhagen

Not the first city you might think of when looking at transportation in global cities, but in terms of transport infrastructure Copenhagen has one of the best in the world. Their driverless underground system has operated 24/7 since 2002. In addition an S-train system runs from 05:00am- 00:30am daily.

Awarded the “Best Metro” and “Best Driver-less Metro” awards at the 2010 MetroRail congress in London, the Copenhagen system is considered one of the safest, cleanest and most efficient underground lines in the world. An average ticket on this service would cost around 31 Danish Krone (£3.08).

Blueprint for the future

When London’s night tube finally launches, under the branding ‘free the night’, TfL will be keen to stress the unique qualities it will bring to London’s transport system. By making the city accessible for longer, the night tube will place London among a select group of world cities with 24-hour transport infrastructure.

And the success of the programme could prove key to encouraging some of the world’s other largest cities to follow suit, potentially allowing London to provide a blueprint for services which could be emulated across the globe.


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Read our article How data and smart city infrastructure can support transport planning for more on intelligent mobility and how London is leading the way in the use of data in transport planning.

Green for go: the rebirth of light rail

tramby James Carson

When Edinburgh’s new tram system opens this week it will be three years overdue and millions of pounds over budget. But, in spite of the delays, spiralling costs and contractual difficulties, the Edinburgh system is joining a wider urban light rail renaissance.

Since the 1990s, municipalities around the world have been investing more in light rail transit systems: Continue reading