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Clean air in cities? Why we need to talk about the 1835 Highway Act

Clean air in cities? Why we need to talk about the 1835 Highway Act

Today, the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn spoke on Radio 4 about the urgency of cleaning up the air in London. Quoting the shocking figure of 40,000 people dying prematurely because of illnesses caused by poor air quality every year in the UK. A national health emergency? Surely so, but how can we possibly make the transformation to cleaner air fast enough?

The Urgency – Poor Air Quality Is Killing Us

This is obviously not a new discovery, we are well aware that poor air quality is linked to poor public health.

Back in 1956, the Clean Air Act was written to reduce the dark smoke emitted by industry, trains and households at the time. This was a result of London’s Great Smog of 1952, where the 4-day long smog caused thousands of deaths in the capital, and 100,000s the following year. Back then, the legislation focused on the visible smoke, soot and smog. After the Clean Air Act was passed, coal-burning power stations like Battersea were fitted with soot reducing systems. 

coal consumption UK

This morning, Sadiq Kahn cited the 1956 Clean Air Act and reiterated the importance of working towards a Clean Air bill suitable for the 21st Century. Inner-city air pollution is not caused by coal fires. We have an urgent problem caused by something else.

Inner City Air Pollution – London

Today, we have the technology for anyone to see the hourly pollution reading of the city. Just by typing LONDON AIR into google, I can see that the pollutant concentrations are caused by traffic. Readings of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3) Particles and Smog, (PM2.5 and PM10), can be seen on a live feed map, where the concentrations of the most dangerous pollutants are updated by the hour. According to researchers at Kings College London, air pollution kills roughly 9,500 Londoners per year, children being the most vulnerable to the effects as their lungs are still developing.

Inner City Pollution - Are Electric Vehicles The Answer?

Studies named diesel vehicles the main culprit, but scientists say all vehicles, even electric ones, contribute to particulate matter from brakes and tyres.

"If you simply convert or replace a fossil fuel vehicle with an electric one, you're only reducing emissions a small amount," says Frank Kelly, the director of the Environmental Research Group at King's College London. "If we really want to reduce emissions we need many fewer vehicles on the road."

Yes, we need fewer vehicles on the road, and this can only be solved by better provisions for public transit and active travel. In London, things are certainly moving in the right direction, but change still isn’t happening fast enough.

Last year, Professor Stephen Holgate linked the death of schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah to illegal levels of air pollution where she lived near the south circular in London. She died of asthma. The Mayor is helping her mother to bring the inquest to the Attorney General.

If you compare London to other cities in the UK, London is about 20 years ahead of other cities like Manchester and Birmingham. London has a complex and well-funded transport network with investment far outweighing those in other cities. London does have one of the densest populations in Europe, granted, and accounts for 13% of the population of the UK. But what about the other 87% of people? This is what we call the Transport gap. It results in the north experiencing chronic underfunding in transport. The result is other cities being woefully behind the capital.

“Over the last 10 years, Londoners enjoyed an annual average of £708 of transport spending per person, while just £289 was spent for each person in the north of England", the analysis found.

car pollution air

"If the north had received the same per capita amount as London, over the last decade the region would have benefited from £63bn more in transport investment, IPPR North says.” Helen Pidd from The Guardian 2018.

Suitable funding in affordable and low emission public transit would be a start, if not a necessity. Londoners have already benefitted from the introduction of “Hydrogen or hybrid electric buses, resulting in a 90% reduction on NOX gasses on oxford street due to the buses.” Sadiq Khan is also about to implement the Ultra Emission Zone on the 8th of April.

For the rest of the country, getting more people out of their cars and using active travel and public transit is a real challenge. In Manchester alone, the bus network is severely lacking, the metro does not cope with the capacity, and Northern Rail is on its knees.

Meanwhile, there is government investment in electric cars and autonomous cars. Billions of dollars are spent on these car technologies, but won’t have any meaningful impact for years to come. Different cars won’t help achieve the goal of fewer cars.

How Do We Achieve Fewer Cars?

More people are moving to urban areas and the population continues to grow. How can we possibly reduce the number of cars on the roads? London is about to implement the Ultra Low Emission Zone on the 8th of April 2019. Charging a PCN on any vehicles which don’t make the emission standards, with the zone expanding to the North and South Circular by 2021.

This is a step in the right direction, but will people just pay the charge and continue their habits? It’s easy to feel defeated so let’s look further afield for some inspiration.

Reducing Car Usage In Cities Around The World

Take Pontevedra, a city on the east coast of northern Spain. It has banned cars under the leadership of Mayor Lores, since 1999 where he implemented the pedestrianisation of the 300,000 sqm city centre within his first month in office.

“How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” asks César Mosquera, the city’s head of infrastructures. “For me this is paradise. Even if it’s raining, I walk everywhere. And the same shopkeepers who complain are the ones who have survived in spite of the crisis. It’s also a great place to have kids.”

Take Paris, whose Mayor Anne Hidalgo implements a car-free day and has embraced innovation in light modes and electric modes of mobility – where e-scooters and other PLEVs are a common sight within the city.

Paris on a no car day

Take Taipei, where authorities have legalised cycling on 240 miles of city centre pavements. They have taken a strip of pavement from pedestrians, which in turn, gives segregated cycle lanes to the city at a low cost and it works. Now 5% of all journeys are made by bike, which is double that of London, and four times that of New York. Interestingly more than half of cyclists are women. Taipei, like many other cities in Asia, has created slow lanes, taking space away from cars specifically to cater for light vehicles, mostly in the form of mopeds and scooters.

Road in Taipai

Witnessing the sheer volume of scooters in Taipei is like seeing a vision of European cities of the future. Light vehicles not only take up less space, are more affordable and use less fuel, they also come in a plethora of electric versions, zero emission light vehicles, the most notable brand being the Gogoro. Gogoro has achieved something in Taipei that any European city could benefit from. Rather than using phone tech for a shared service, they have worked within the city’s framework to build in shared power banks. These battery banks are installed next to the usual petrol stations. They allow users to skip the charge time and just swap their used battery for a fully charged one. The shared power is also owned and serviced by the battery company, eliminating the problem of unregulated battery care. It also allows the consumer to purchase the scooter, and just rent the power, which also keeps initial cost down for the consumer.

(Photo: Gogoro Owners Club)

Innovation Is Light Vehicles

As the majority of car journeys are for short distances, the sub 5 miles, or last mile journey is the key to this puzzle. In London, active modes like cycling and walking are being given notable investment and the results are fantastic. But the UK is far behind in embracing other light modes, low powered e-scooters, e-moped and personal light vehicles or PLEVs. They can’t get a look in the UK until the legislation is changed. Even kick-scooters are not recognised as an active mode within the law, despite many adults and children using them as a really useful mobility device which makes use of the safety of the pavement.

Sadiq Kahn riding e-scooter from British scooter brand, Swifty Scooters in July 2017

There are many new innovations in the light vehicles sector and there is funding too. There are government initiatives in the name of Horizon 2020, a European Commission program of research and innovation. Many funding areas are specific to low carbon transport targets set in the Paris Climate Accord. However, the sector has taken slow uptake in the UK due to the law. The law in question is the 1835 Highways Act, section 72 (England and Wales), which renders riding any “carriage” on the footpath illegal. The bicycle was classified as a “carriage” in the 1888 amendment. How can a nearly 200 year old legislation be fit for purpose?

I have been in recent contact with the DfT regarding the pavement legislation and they confirmed to me the following:

“I note your suggestion that vehicles such as electric scooters should be allowed on pavements in England, as in other countries in Europe. However, the Highways Act of 1835 prohibits the riding of any ‘carriage’ on the footway and this includes personal transporters. There are no current plans to amend this legislation.” Department for Transport Nov. 2017


And about cycle lanes:

” A cycle lane is defined in Schedule 1 of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (TSRGD) as ‘part of a carriageway of a road reserved for pedal cycles which are separated from the rest of the carriageway’ …I can confirm that the Department has no current plans to amend this legislation to permit other types of vehicles to use the lane.” Department for Transport Nov. 2017


The Last Mile Issue And Light Vehicles In The UK

It is obvious the UK could do more. An amendment of legislation for PLEVs and other personal mobility devices like kick-scooters is definitely holding the UK back. There is so much potential and innovation available to combat the problem of short distance car journeys, that it is an opportunity that the UK can’t ignore for long.

Camilla was recently invited to a round table discussion about Manchester and it’s Low Carbon Future by the GMCC. The discussion will be featured in the next issue of The Business. 

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