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:

Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

Startup Stock Photos

Our recent “Ideas in practice” briefing for our members highlighted the difficulties in calculating the numbers of homeless people. And, as we’ve previously reported, the official figures don’t reflect the full scale of the problem.

But there’s little doubt that homelessness continues to affect large numbers of people. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter. And figures published last month suggest that in the UK homelessness is a long way from being beaten.

Local and central government, along with homelessness charities are working hard to tackle the problem, but new approaches are needed to prevent and address the issue. One of these is the idea of hackathons.

Applying technology to help the homeless

Hackathons are collaborative challenges where teams of skilled technology developers (or ‘hackers’) compete to solve a given problem or demonstrate innovative use of technology under a tight time constraint.

They originated in Silicon Valley, and have often been used by technology companies such as Google and Apple to develop commercial ideas. The “like” button on Facebook was one such idea to emerge from a hackathon in 2007.

However, social enterprises and charities have also been exploring the possibilities of hackathons, and some have specifically focused on homelessness. Recent examples emerging from the US include:

  • A 2014 hackathon where teams of digital developers and designers got together to brainstorm, prototype and pitch ideas on tackling homelessness in Seattle. The winning idea centred on a system to allow homeless people to digitise personal identity documents.
  • An app developed by coders in New York to help keep homeless people off the streets and give them the care that they need.
  • A weekend-long hackathon in Tampa, Florida, which developed a smartphone app to help the homeless population more easily find resources such as shelters and soup kitchens, and a web-based survey to help calculate the scale of homelessness in Tampa.

UK hackathons

The hackathon idea has also taken hold in the UK. In 2012, Westminster City Council brought together a group of digital developers and housing charities to apply their minds and skills to tackling homelessness.  The stakeholders set out their objectives, challenging the developers to build something useful and accessible, either for homeless people themselves, for the charities and local authorities supporting them, or for members of the public:

  • Homeless Link wanted to offer people a means to act when they see a rough sleeper, to prompt support services, and to inform people of what is offered to rough sleepers locally.
  • The Single Homeless Project (SHP) charity was looking for a way of enabling its clients to be inspired and motivated to use digital technology and to learn how to use it in a cost effective way.
  • Westminster City Council highlighted the need for rough sleepers to be shown they were valued members of the community.

Among the ideas to emerge from that first hackathon were:

  • an app allowing the public to submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough
  • an application connecting Homeless Link’s data with geo-location data to identify the nearest suitable service for a homeless person to contact
  • a personal organizer for homeless people to log their contact with government agencies and track their applications for benefits

The homelesshack website has continued to report on how these and other applications have been developed and updated.

In April this year, the Business Rocks festival in Manchester included a homelessness hackathon that challenged participants with the question: ‘How Can Tech Solve Global Homelessness?’ Contestants were asked to focus on mental health service solutions through social media, and were made aware of the everyday challenges and systematic needs of the homeless and most vulnerable, in the UK and across the world.

The winning idea was an app to encourage, support and help find work opportunities for homeless and vulnerably housed people. Other pitches included a website to connect homeless people with relevant support services, an app to facilitate crowdfunding for homeless support projects and a remote postal service for people with no fixed address.

And this coming weekend, teams of coders, designers and housing professionals will take part in a hackathon in Edinburgh. They aim to come up with creative solutions to support people facing homelessness or poor housing.

Making it happen?

As these examples demonstrate, there is no shortage of good ideas on how technology can be leveraged in the cause of addressing homelessness. It remains to be seen whether these imaginative and innovative solutions can be developed to tackle one of the world’s greatest social problems.


Further reading