Pedalling away the fumes: Sadiq Khan’s anti-pollution policies

Cycle Superhighway in Westminster. Matt Brown

With City Hall warning that air pollution in parts of London is reaching “high levels”, the capital’s pollution problem is once again evident. It’s a major problem, and not just when toxic clouds from Germany drift by. NOx gasses – Nitrogen Dioxide – is spewed into the streets of London daily by diesel engines.

An initiative unveiled last summer was intended to tackle the issue, and included an extra £10 congestion charge on old diesel cars driving through Central London. Now the Mayor has announced a raft of new measures, noting that some streets in London had already broken annual emission limits in a matter of days:

“That’s an entire year’s legal allowance of hourly Nitrogen Dioxide exceeded before the first two weeks of the year had even passed.”

Apart from the extra congestion charge on old diesel cars, Khan also intends to replace the London bus fleet with new, cleaner buses, and to enact the Ultra Low Emission Zone; a stricter version of the congestion charge already in place. The congestion charge and Sadiq Khan’s future plans have received criticism for being an expensive inconvenience to Londoners, or for being “no longer fit for purpose” as the London Assembly wrote in their January 2017 report. The report also points out that, “achieving a shift to more sustainable modes [of transportation] has other benefits, too, including reductions in air pollution and improvements to Londoners’ health” . Last month, Sadiq Khan did indeed promise to improve London’s bicycle infrastructure by allocating £770 million, which among other things will go towards more cycle superhighways. This announcement led him to call himself “the most pro-cycling mayor London has ever had”. Prior to his bicycle promise he had received criticism for not doing enough – especially in comparison to his predecessor, Boris Jonson, who was behind the “Boris bikes”, London’s bike-sharing scheme.

Luring more people onto their bikes is a difficult task. And although London will be spending almost the same amount of money per capita on bicycle infrastructure as the Netherlands or Denmark, it will take a long time before London can compare itself to those two countries.

According to Cycling UK, a cyclists’ interest group, 4 % of people in the UK cycle daily. In the Netherlands and in Denmark that number is 43 % and 30 % respectively.

In the Danish capital Copenhagen the number of bicycles in the city centre now exceeds the amount of cars, according to figures release late last year. 252,600 cars were counted entering Copenhagen city centre compared to 265,700 bikes.

Cycling UK’s Policy Director Robert Geffen has welcomed Sadiq Khan’s plans to improve London for bicyclists. He said: “[Bicycles can] take large numbers of polluting vehicles off the road, with a typical road lane carrying an average of 2,000 cars per hour or 14,000 bicycles.” However not everyone believes more bicycles in cities bring benefits. Labour MP for Stoke-On-Trent Robert Flello cited Cambridge as an example, adding: “If half the population makes at least one journey a week on bikes and congestion is still going through the roof, the transfer to two wheels clearly hasn’t solved many problems. Of course, it might be that if they didn’t do that everything would be even worse, but the point is that while bikes may be an element of the solution to the congestion problem they’re not an answer on their own. Make no mistake, congestion is incredibly closely related to pollution. Idling vehicles, stuck in traffic, produce far more noxious outpourings than free-flowing ones.”

He faced strong criticism from Cycling UK but stuck to his guns, adding: “I’m entirely supportive of the idea that using bikes can make a meaningful, albeit probably far from decisive, contribution to the logistics sector and to the reduction of congestion and pollution in our cities. What I am against is the bashing of the major part of that sector as some kind of evil, diesel fume-belching demonic brotherhood, intent on choking our streets and our children’s lungs in pursuit of undeserved wealth.”

Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan, regardless of criticism seems determined to carry out his plans to reduce pollution as well as his plans to improve bicycle conditions. The £770 million bicycle pledge will be wholly distributed at the end of his term as mayor, Khan has promised.

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