London’s deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues writes about the work being done in the capital to clean up air quality and reduce traffic.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health. Poor air quality stunts the growth of children’s lungs and worsens chronic illness such as asthma, lung and heart disease. There is also emerging evidence linking air pollution with an increased vulnerability to COVID-19.
In London we have already made great progress in improving air quality over recent years, introducing bold policies including the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone which helped reduce roadside nitrogen dioxide by 44 per cent in central London from February 2017 to January 2020. In 2016, London’s air exceeded the hourly legal limit for nitrogen dioxide for over 4,000 hours. Last year, this fell to just over 100 hours – a reduction of 97 per cent.
We have also seen additional improvements in air quality during the coronavirus lockdown as traffic fell to around half pre-lockdown levels. As we start to recover, our challenge will be to eradicate air pollution permanently. We must build on the success of policies such as ULEZ – and Londoners agree. A recent YouGov poll of residents in London revealed overwhelming support for measures to protect health by tackling air pollution emissions from cars. Nearly nine in ten Londoners are in favour of measures to reduce car emissions and use.
Last month, the mayor announced plans to transform parts of central London into one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world as part of our Streetspace Plan. This is not only necessary to enable safe social distancing on public transport in London as lockdown restrictions are eased, but to avoid a car-based recovery. We need millions more journeys to be made on foot or by bike, which these changes will enable, as well as continuing to improve the city’s air quality.
With London’s public transport capacity potentially limited to a fifth of pre-crisis levels to enable safe social distancing, up to eight million journeys a day will need to be made by other means. If people switch only a fraction of these journeys to cars, London will grind to a halt. Essential deliveries and emergency services will be stuck in gridlock and Londoners will once again be exposed to toxic traffic fumes and rising levels of road danger. Our city’s economic recovery will be choked off.
The Congestion Charge, LEZ and ULEZ were suspended to allow key workers to travel safely during the strictest period of lockdown. Seven weeks later (despite the very large number of people working from home) car traffic on weekdays in central London surpassed pre-lockdown levels. As a condition of the recent funding deal with the Government TfL was required to bring forward proposals quickly to temporarily widen the scope and level of the Congestion Charge.
The reintroduction of the charges helped return car traffic in central London to below pre-lockdown levels. But it is now increasing again and if left unchecked as lockdown restrictions ease and people switch from public transport to cars there could be a doubling of car use in central London.
We cannot replace one health crisis with another. London’s road to recovery cannot be clogged with cars. We need a green recovery that prioritises walking and cycling, ensures that essential vehicles like buses, taxis and freight vehicles are zero emission, and creates new green jobs and industries that we need. Only by doing this will we create a greener, cleaner, healthier future for our city.