Pollution in London: Will Sadiq’s plans make a difference?

by Sara Valle-Martínez

London is a metropolitan city with over nine million inhabitants roaming its streets, taking red double-decker buses, and pushing and fighting to get a seat in the Central Line at rush hour.

If you step outside you realise a few things right away. First, the city is a melting pot – a quite outdated census from 2011 found that over 250 languages are spoken in London, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world.

Second, there’s a dome of pollution covering the sky.

Heavy traffic on Seven Sisters Road. Photo Credit: Sara Valle-Martínez

Since Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London in 2016, London has seen a transformation, with new regulations and plans that intend to make the city a greener, safer place. He has always been particularly proud of his controversial Ultra-Low Emissions Zone. 

But have London’s pollution levels actually improved since Khan took over from Conservative leader Boris Johnson?

Toxic air for Londoners

This January 23, Khan confirmed the expansion of the ULEZ when he said: “We know how dangerous toxic air is for Londoners – that’s why I’m doing everything in my power to tackle it. […] Alongside the extreme cold temperatures we’ve been experiencing, we are also expecting high levels of air pollution.

“We all need to be careful over the next few days. I’m urging Londoners to look after each other by choosing to walk, cycle or take public transport where possible, avoiding unnecessary car journeys, stopping engine idling and not burning garden waste, all of which contributes to high levels of pollution. This is particularly important in order to protect those who are more vulnerable to high pollution.”

Social short by Sara Valle-Martinez

During the last few years, the city has had to adapt to events such as the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown, as well as a shift in trading and immigration rules because of Brexit. These two facts have probably both changed the numbers of languages spoken as migrants left the country and the pollution levels fluctuated as people stayed home to fight Covid.

So where does that leave London? The dense road network and high buildings make central London one of the most polluted places in the UK. In fact, streets in the City’s main area triple the NO2 guidelines and legal limits set by the World Health Organisation and the levels of ozone (O3) at ground-level are worse in the outskirts. Human activities are the main responsible for the ozone levels that, in the long run, can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems.

Khan’s plan makes sense – suffering from adult-onset asthma himself, he designed a manifesto in 2016 that included green initiatives to reduce pollution, like bringing forward the ULEZ, which is now being extended to the whole Greater London area.

Highbury is one of the areas that have changed. Photo credit: Sara Valle-Martínez

Councils have also been active to fight pollution levels and in January 2021 Islington Council introduced a scheme for people-friendly streets in Highbury, which aimed to make it easier and safer to walk and cycle, clean up the air we breathe, and reduce road danger by introducing camera-enforced traffic filters on Highbury Place and Highbury West.

The reduce of the public consultation 12 months after were mixed and people still have strong opinions about the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN).

Neil Christie, 60, lives in the Highbury LTN. Christie worked in advertising and marketing for many years and now he´s a full-time student at King’s College. Two years ago, “frustrated by the cost and inconvenience of owning a using a car in London”, he got rid of his cars.

“Our experience of [Highbury LTN] has been entirely positive. There’s been a noticeable reduction in traffic that has transformed the neighbourhood – it’s safer, quieter, and more pleasant, with many more people out walking, cycling, kids scooting, people enjoying the Fields and using the local shops, services, and cafés,” he said.

“There’s much more of a lively community feel now that there are fewer cars around. And, generally, that seems to be the case across the other parts of Islington where schemes have been introduced.”

“I’ve heard people suggesting that perhaps taxis and deliveries won’t come to addresses in an LTN. We’ve had no difficulties with that. My parents are elderly and disabled, so we need taxis when they visit, but that’s never been a problem,” Neil added.

More traffic on Seven Sisters Road on the way to Finsbury Park. Photo credit: Sara Valle-Martínez

John Stewart’s opinion is the complete opposite. Stewart, 68, worked as a lawyer in the City, Wellcome Trust and University of London for 40 years, and retiring a year ago. He lives in one of the adjacent streets to the Canonbury West LTN and he’s written to Canonbury Councillors and Islington Council to state his concerns.

“The street is too narrow to turn around, so cars, vans, and trucks have to do three point turns or reverse – both dangerous. The signage is terrible and unattractive – turning a conservation area into an ugly street. 

“The Council collects thousands of pounds from people who don’t notice the poor signs and there is more crime on the street. Disabled people without cars are discriminated against, which makes no sense. The rare times we use our car, every trip is three times longer and much further,” Stewart said.

“The whole premise of LTNs in Islington is wrong.  The premise is that there will be fewer motor vehicles if you make driving miserable. But it isn’t true – the vehicles just use the major roads only, which cannot handle the traffic. The negative effect on buses from congestion is a major downside in particular. 

“There are some increases in bicycling in London – myself included – but because of bike lanes and Cycleways, not because of LTNs in Islington,” he added.

Has pollution improved?

Katharina Herrmann works in the private sector and she lives right in the heart of one of the most congested streets in the Islington area, close to Finsbury Park. She moved to the area in 1994 and she says pollution hasn’t improved. Her point of view is similar to Stewart’s.

“I’ve lived in this area since 1994. At the time I moved here there was already a large LTN on the Hackney side. It was originally introduced to help not so much with traffic but with prostitution. But as a result of this, we already had quite heavy traffic of Blackstock Road because all alternative roads on the Hackney side were closed,” she said. 

“It was bad during the rush hour, but there were long stretches during the day were there was not a lot of traffic.”

Empty streets adjacent to some of the busiest roads in Islington. Photo credit: Sara Valle-Martínez

“During the pandemic there was an influx of funding for LTN and, in a very hasty fashion, which was largely because there was funding that needed to be spent quickly. A large new LTN was installed in Highbury West and Highbury Field. Officially this is two LTNs, but we are joined, so it’s essentially one large one. This is essentially twice the size of what a LTN should be,” she added.

She says the amount of traffic has pushed her to stop doing some of the things she used to do, as well as forcing her to make the drastic decision of having her son live with his father far away from her.

“It was disastrous.” She remembers when the LTN was first put into place, as she recalls the amount of traffic in her local area. Herrmann said the consultation was not taken seriously and not everyone was asked for their opinion.

“The problem was that there was a huge amount of traffic, which is now sort of often stagnant [because of traffic jams]. But the total denial of the local authority or that it was even happening was also a big problem.

“This whole notion that put it on the boundary votes and people now post official votes is bad. Six months in, the local authority published a monitoring report which recorded some very interesting figures,” she said. “It recorded an absolutely amazing and astonishing 40 odd percent of traffic declined Holloway Road, which everybody who was at that meeting and had Westwood support found utterly gobsmacking because Holloway Road, for all we knew, was an extremely busy road and full of traffic all the time.”

By Sara Valle-Martinez

The UN released a report yesterday with a “final warning” for countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by before we reach a “point of no return”. That is because global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases keep increasing – mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and intensive agriculture. The world is running out of time and London is, too.

But are the big city and its mayor doing enough? Low Traffic Neighbourhoods as well as the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone are small steps from a global perspective that have a major impact on individuals’ lives. While LTN and the ULEZ seem great tactics on a bigger scale, people are concerned that traffic is being funnelled instead of avoided.Holloway neighbours talk about the ULEZ and LTNs in the area

Holloway neighbours talk about the ULEZ and LTNs in the area

The measurements are in place, but numbers and personal experience don’t always go hand in hand. While the schemes seem to be helping people on a bigger scale, others are concerned their individual health is not taken as seriously.

Link to published article: https://hollowayexpress.org.uk/pollution-in-london/

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