Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Breath of Foul Air

Funny how quickly the politicians react to riots compared to their torpidity in respect of air pollution, which kills far more people but in a way that doesn't grab the headlines or TV screens. TfL have proudly unveiled their "innovative measures" to tackle pollution, in response to the looming threat of EU fines, so let's take a quick gander at exactly what they are.

What they very definitely don't do much of is reducing the pollutants being emitted. Boris has been backsliding on cleaning up black cab emissions and on the central Low Emission Zone for a while, so these are in fact measures that Boris has delayed rather than anything he can claim credit for (even though Kulveer Ranger tries).

There is a new Clean Air Fund which will be spent initially on three measures: dust suppressant, which sticks particulates to road surfaces, an anti-idling campaign, and planters.

Dust suppressants are only effective on roads where they are applied, and clearly the cost of treating large numbers of roads would be considerable. The manufacture of the dust suppressant and the process of applying it causes pollution. And according to TfL, it only yields a 10% - 14% reduction in PM10 concentrations and has no effect on other pollutants such as NOx.

The anti-idling campaign involves employing 'eco-marshals' to ask drivers - mainly taxi drivers - not to leave their engines idling. It's not having much effect so far, as every single taxi at the rank on The Strand had its engine running last time I walked past (while holding my breath). Without fining drivers, it is difficult to imagine this having much effect. "The eco-marshals are existing TfL staff on secondment, two of whom are licensed London taxi drivers," boasts the press release. You can just imagine the banter, can't you, between the marshals and the taxi drivers who don't want to wear out their starter motors by stopping and starting their engines more than once a day. I wonder if the marshals will be using bikes to get around?

Planters are simply 6-ft high towers of pot plants by the side of roads, which have some effect in absorbing PM10s. Now let me guess: these planters will be about the width of a cycle path, which there isn't enough room for in a crowded city like London. I wonder if these planters will be in the road, or on the pavement? Here's an idea: why not turn Park Lane into a park? That should get rid of a few PM10s.

Of course, this Clean Air Fund is coming out of general taxation - no 'polluter pays' principle here. TfLs own figures claim that taxis are responsible for 25% of PM10 emissions in central London. But taxis aren't paying 25% of the Clean Air Fund. They'd rather someone else paid to clean up their mess.

What else are TfL doing to promote clean air? "An expanded bike hire scheme." Ah yes - that'll be the scheme that has singularly failed to get people out of cars. An expanded bike hire scheme has the potential to positively affect air pollution if people switched from taxis to bikes, but the traffic-choked, car-centric roads of central London, devoid as they are of segregated paths or even usable quiet routes are hardly welcoming for the novice cyclist.

The plain fact of the matter is this. There is only one sure-fire way of reducing emissions in London, and that is to reduce motor traffic. And that is the one thing that TfL isn't doing. In fact, with schemes like the Blackfriars Bridge northern junction, they're increasing motor traffic capacity at the expense of non-polluting transport modes.


  1. Great post. The only thing I would say in addition is that this all points to the need to introduce road pricing, or at the very least an improved congestion charge. It's by far the best way to reduce traffic without increasing congestion. The Tories, including Boris, seem to have ideologically committed themselves to never bringing in road pricing, which condemns us to yet more Blackfriars-style attempts to accommodate increased levels of traffic in a city that should be doing the opposite.

  2. The dust suppressant won't cost much if - as I am sure I have seen somewhere - it is only going to be used on roads which, co-incidentally, I am sure, are where the pollution measurement equipment used by the EU to monitor London's compliance with clean air directives are located.

  3. It was reported in 2010 that air pollution kills over 4,000 Londoners every year, and 50,000 people in the UK overall ( That is only the tip of the iceberg though, this pollution, particularly small particulates, also increase rates of asthma, allergies and respiratory and heart diseases. It is an absolute scandal that such pollution is being tackled only when the EU decides, after much delay, to apply the rules and fine the worst offenders. Our politicians are, quite knowingly, killing us through inaction.