MPs call for councils to have power to create clean air zones

MPs in the UK are finally coming to terms with the need to address air quality in our towns and cities. They ask that clean air zones should be introduced in UK cities to tackle the problems caused by air pollution, according to a new report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

The new report warned that air pollution is a “public health emergency”, linked to the early deaths of 40,000–50,000 people every year from cardiac, respiratory and other diseases, as well as harming the environment and agriculture.

It also found European Union limits on nitrogen dioxide pollution were breached in 38 out of 43 UK areas.

It’s all well and good for this call to come but it’s not going to be the UK Government, nor its MPs who set the policy or invest in the infrastructure needed. It will be the local councils, the Metropolitan authorities and city councils who will be tasked with that.

I blogged on this almost three years ago (see here) “here is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue seriously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem”.

These local authorities, at a time when money is short to invest and when they are wholly reliant on income from, for example, car parking charges, will be required to introduce policies which many of their electorate will find unpopular – such as restricting diesel vehicles in areas where pollution is already high. This might include taxis (wait for the Uber-lobby), buses (wait for the public transport lobby), trucks (wait for the Chambers and Business ‘leaders’ lobby) and, of course, the electorate to vote accordingly.

Interesting timing then, that this should be put on the table now, one week from local elections. How many people will choose who they vote for based on their commitment to improved air quality? Well, in London, Khan, Goldsmith et al are being pushed on it so it’s only a matter of time before other cities such as Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Sheffield all face it becoming a manifesto challenge.

For years local politicians have called for the Government to take the policy lead on this. If they do there will be nowhere to hide for local councillors and they will have no more excuses to put off measures that will see local air quality improve.

You can read my thoughts of some three years back (https://aardvarknoseface.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/sustainable-cities-need-low-emission-vehicles/). In summary though, local authorities have got to redress the balance between walking, cycling and the car. Investment in public transport (and not dirty 25 year old diesel buses) and infrastructure for refuelling low emission engines (preferably electric, gas and hydrogen) with the right policy incentives is absolutely central to this debate.

Who wouldn’t vote for a cleaner, pedestrian/cyclist friendly city centre afterall?

Source:

Official – Time to Act on Air Quality in the UK

At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that we now know, better than ever, what the causes of poor air quality are and what is needed to do it. Central to that is political will both at the national and local level. Unfortunately, therein lies the issue. Nationally there is reluctance to tell local authorities what to do and the trend has been to incentivise them to do the right thing through the provision of small pots of money to remedy dirty buses or encourage the uptake of electric vehicle charge points. Locally there has been real fear of appearing anti-car. It has meant local authorities have got themselves into a proper tangle with conflicting policies for regeneration and growth overriding policies to promote air quality.

Whilst the announcement is welcome, how convenient for it to come during Purdah such that no politician has been able to step up and take responsibility for the inaction of the current government or previous governments. Yes, this really has been a failing of both Labour and the Conservative / LibDem coalition. Instead a fairly weak comment from DEFRA A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. “It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.” ClientEarth lawyers recently told a hearing that enforcement by the court was the only “effective remedy” for the UK’s “ongoing breach” of European Union law.

Previous blogs I have suggested what the solution might be. These words were drafted when I worked for the City Council in Sheffield, a city that has a better understanding of its air quality issues than most, but has yet to make any real inroads, despite some great things happening with EVs.

So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modeled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).

Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.

Across South Yorkshire we have identified a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.

 

Driverless public transport will change our approach to city planning – and living

Great article by Stephen Potter,  Professor of Transport Strategy at The Open University:

Driverless public transport will change our approach to city planning – and living.

Just a couple of years ago, driverless cars were viewed as little more than a geekish techno-fantasy. But the entry of tech behemoth Google has produced an autonomous car that is now very close to entering the market.

Test-running on streets in the US has been underway for some time and they will be street legal in the UK from the start of 2015. To start this process rolling, a series of small-scale UK city trials has been recently announced.

Greenwich in London will have an autonomous tourist passenger shuttle, and autonomous valet parking for specially adapted cars. Milton Keynes and Coventry will host the UK Autodrive programme, and the Venturer consortium in Bristol will examine the effects of autonomous cars on congestion and road-traffic safety.