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Three ways to clean up London’s air

Our polluted air is causing a national health crisis. It leads to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and is costing our health service billions. In London alone, it is responsible for up to 141,000 life years lost, as well as over 3,400 hospital admissions. It costs us an estimated £3.7 billion.

Successive mayors have promised to do more to tackle this crisis. Cleaner bus fleets, for example, have made a dent in the figures, but London still exceeds legal air pollution limits many times over. With half of air pollution in London coming from road transport, we must find new ways to significantly reduce vehicle-related pollution.

Here are three areas where the Mayor could do more…

1. Environmental charging

While London’s Congestion Charge was initially successful at reducing congestion, this has now reached pre-charge levels, and has done nothing to improve air quality in the capital. The current Mayor of London has gone further by introducing two environmental schemes for drivers of older vehicles on top of the Congestion Charge. The T-Charge came into effect in October 2017 but is due to be replaced with the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019 within the Congestion Charge Zone, with an extension planned for 2021.

But charging zones are a blunt instrument. While deterring some of the most polluting vehicles from entering certain areas, they penalise a small group of drivers that enter them. At the same time, the set daily charge incentivises people who have paid it to get value for money by making their journey longer, while also encouraging other drivers to avoid paying by skirting around the edges of the zone.

The number of overlapping schemes can also be confusing for drivers. Therefore, a much simpler option would be a single London-wide road user charging scheme with variable charges based on distance travelled, vehicle emissions, timing and location of the journey.

A scheme like this could better reflect the impact of individual journeys, helping people make informed travel choices, while improving air quality across London at the same time. It would also be fairer and simpler for drivers to understand, and easier for Transport for London to administer.

2. Cleaner vehicles

It is widely agreed – by both the Mayor of London and the government ­­– that we need to shift to low- and zero-emissions vehicles. Alongside other campaigners, the Mayor has called for support for businesses and drivers – especially those on low incomes – to replace older polluting vehicles with cleaner alternatives with the help of a National Vehicle Scrappage Fund backed by government.

But we don’t have to wait for government to take action. Instead, the Mayor could lead the way by investing some of the proceeds from the ULEZ into a London cashback scrappage scheme, as we’ve previously argued. Drivers who pay the most under the ULEZ are the biggest polluters, so targeting them will have the biggest impact on air quality. They would also have the greatest incentive to participate in the scheme. The cashback offer could be in the form of mobility credits as an incentive to use alternative modes of transport.

3. Fewer vehicles

To make a lasting impact on air quality, we need not only cleaner vehicles, but fewer vehicles on our roads overall. While the transition to low- and zero-emissions vehicles – especially for buses, freight and private hire vehicles – plays a key role in achieving air quality ambitions, we cannot ignore the fact that they also produce non-tailpipe particulate emissions (from brakes, tyres and roadware) that have been proven to be just as harmful to public health.

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy has laid out plans for 80 per cent of all trips in London to be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport by 2041 (up from 63 per cent currently). We welcome this ambitious target. Getting people out of their cars will not only improve air quality but also encourage more physical activity, fighting obesity-related diseases. London’s streets would be more pleasant and inviting places where people want to play and socialise.

There is a limit to what cash-strapped boroughs or the Mayor can do by themselves. Government needs to offer more support to realise these ambitions and encourage active mobility. Investment in reliable public transport networks, cycling lanes and parking infrastructure as well as high quality public realm are paramount to offer people viable alternatives to car usage.

What next?

Centre for London is exploring all these issues in a major conference on July 4, Under Pressure: The way ahead for London’s roads and streets, produced in partnership with Transport for London.

Silviya Barrett is Research Manager at Centre for London.