Air Pollution, bollocks and its mayor. A judgement to finally save us!

PM25-LONDONWhen I first discussed air pollution with my friends, amongst the parents the school my daughter was attending,  and with many others, they often looked at me, as if I was some sort of green radical. Maybe I am.  I simply looked at the evidence creeping up from time to time, though instinctively most people in Kings Cross can see the evidence against their windows in form of black dust, mainly sulphur remnants from Diesel engines. And that’s but the dust you can see, the more dangerous stuff, PM10 and PM25 small particulates, enter our lungs and bodies deeper but are invisible to the naked human eye. Still, astonishingly many people did not think I was giving them any meaningful information, when I quoted them studies that showed, that the proximity of 100 meters of a school to a road with a volume of more than 10.000 cars (Kings Cross!) showed a scientifically significant increase of Asthma incidences in children, or the many other studies on the health implications of air pollution.

I don’t blame those people for looking at me that way. The media in England, except The Guardian (see here an article from 2010), and slightly behind the BBC, was quite slow to react to all of this. Only last year during the combined Saharan and  London pollution smog was it, that I had finally a feeling, that the Evening Standard, that paper given out freely to Londoners these days, and often their only news update, was finally decisive in highlighting the problem.

In my own borough of Camden, the council was however acutely aware of the problem and run two summits on air pollution, the second one in conjunction with Islington. Whilst councillors knew about the issues and did what they could, they fought a scandalously and intentionally lame and deaf TfL, “Lord over all our roads,” and ruled over by above all one man, Boris Johnson.

Remember the days we were told the sprinkling of some substance over the tarmac of our roads was called the answer to air pollution, and that the figures everyone else produced were exaggerated? Anything but reduce traffic! Even last year Boris Johnson was still laughing at people’s concerns on air pollution by comparing London to Bejing or Mexico City. and stating people like myself are bollocks for complaining about the air.

For this was the man who in 2010 abolished half the then existing congestion zone, in a part of town where wealth means that possession of a car, if possible as large as possible – giving us the lovely idiom “Chelsea Tractors” –  and driving it, is seen by many almost as a right in itself. A salute to the Conservative Party loyal boroughs of Kensington and Westminster.

Gone was also the idea of an electric tram connecting Kings Cross with the South, which was set to be build by Ken Livingstone on some of the old tracks last used in late 1950s, when petrol driven Routmasters were cheaper to run than electric trains, and the tram was abolished largely. And the Routemaster was then precisely the strategy of the new blond London mayor, abolishing that plan as soon as he set office and advocating instead a new Routemaster, when red Ken’s red bendy bus seemed inadequate for London’s roads.

Labour and the Greens argued that it was more efficient and more ecological to spend the new Routemaster money on greening the existing fleet, fitting the highest standard exhaust emission filters and a hybrid system on them. This has now been confirmed, namely that the new Routemasters are less ecological than argued by its lobby. Also already forgotten by many, is the chapter of an attempted botched introduction of a hybrid refit technology for all London black cabs, failed back in 2008, when the procurement process of Tfl was flaunt, breaching trademark issues. But black cabs contribute, in the mayors own words, to 1/3 of the particulate matter emissions in London. On the positive side, I hear that this January an electric black cab is finally being piloted (it was first spoken about many years ago), and months after Nissan dropped its plans for a new London cab.

For decades here at Kings Cross, where I live, many including myself  have lobbied for an easing of congestion, and the road flow of the gyratory system, not just because of the air pollution the vehicles cause at the moment, but also because of the noise they create (we had to fight 13 years to win an argument with the housing association Circle 33, to fit a double window system, as the single sash windows allowed in all the noise), and because of safety concerns. When the new mayor sent a quango about two years ago to Kings Cross to conduct yet another study on the gyratory, the appointed field researcher asked us, if we accepted that the traffic needed to flow through our streets, and that this could not change. My answer was, “No, if you look at many major cities like Amsterdam, you can see how traffic even around the main stations has been transformed.” “Why not”, I asked, “in London?” The bewildered look of the researcher showed me, he was the one who failed to understand, seemingly unexposed to global alternatives, and probably hand chosen by TfL to provide solutions to the “car is king mayor.” At the last possible opportunity Johnson fiddled recently with the congestion zone, having been under immense pressure by most members of the GLA, but not before another consultation, whose results were predictable: Yes we are going to enforce a stricter ultra low emission zone, along the congestion zone perimeters – with the headlines a self-laudatio to the mayor “world’s first ultra low emission zone coming” – did we forget to shout hooray and open that champaign bottle at Kings Cross, with half of the area still outside that zone, streets like Euston Road, Swinton Street, Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross Road and Pentonville Road and Rise ?  No chance Johnson would enlarge the zone, you see.

Many, like the four London councils Hackney, Lambeth, Camden and Southwark argued that without a strategy for all of London, doing a bit in the centre has little real effect.  Having not done much of great significance for most of his tenure, Johnson can now argue he is finally green having implemented some changes in the last quarter of his many years in office. Yes he introduced the ultra low congestion zone, yes he enlarges the cycling infrastructure, but most of all, now he will have to deal with that supreme court judgement on Human Rights ground, the kind of dictum the Tories are very keen to take Britain out of, if they win the next elections.

From where I live, in the midst of Kings Cross the damage the policy of the mayor  caused for most of his tenure is clear to see. The dark dust against my window may take off a few years of the lives of all of those who live here, including myself. On many days we have to switch on an in-doors air filter (we are lucky enough to have bought one, but the carbon filter needs replacement every six months at a cost of about £100 Pounds), not the least to note that cars speed in these roads at speeds of up to 50 miles at times. Something by the way that again has finally been heard after decades, I learned there will be a trial 20 Mile zone around Kings Cross soon – hey congratulations, myself and others argued for this for more than 15 years.  The word trial here is a clear indication of how careful TfL is not to upset drivers too much (it is only a trial, we won’t inconvenience you permanently?).

That the supreme court has now argued that, since Boris Johnson came to power, he and his gang and his governmental colleagues from DEFRA, had us for an illegal unhealthy London walk on air pollution and that we, the so called and belittled urban bourgeoisie, were after all correct on air pollution and the traffic, and yes that our human rights were breached, our access and right to clean air in our own homes taken by one arrogant man, is astonishing. It is beyond me that anyone could even think of the man with his unkempt blonde hair as an adequate future prime minister, MP or mayor. He may be witty and funny at times, I am willing to concede that, but as a politician he is intentionally and cleverly obstructive, if a policy does not fit his Weltanschauung. This was for a long time to allow cars without much modification full access. It is simple to understand why. Getting tough here angers all fleet owners and cab drivers and that is bad for votes. But the twist of the story is, that the drivers of cabs and vans, who are on London’s streets day in day out, are actually those people who should be most interested in cleaner and more stringent standards, because it is them who sit right behind the exhausts of others for hours without end. And it is not as if we do not know what can make the change happen. Alternative engine technologies exist, just as there are countless examples of how urban landscapes and the minds of people can be opened and altered.

There is only one way forward, cleaning up the air in London with the latest filters and engines and road lay outs. I wonder if we will have a garden bridge first though (that other vanity project), before these changes will be introduced?

And there are, to borrow the only value in the Tory mindset, business opportunities within for all involved. New engines, trams, charging points, cycle shops, et cetera also create new jobs and create innovation that drive forward business and clean up our city’s air. And at Kings Cross, amongst the most polluted zones in London, we really need a fresh breath of air.

We will not stop to give a sample taste of our toxic fumes to any governmental office holder, who has not yet inhaled them.

To better air and health!

About Daniel Zylbersztajn

Daniel Zylbersztajn, works as a journalist, mostly for German media, and as a Pilates Teacher. Born in Germany and raised in Germany, Holland and Israel, he is a long term resident of London Kings Cross, involved parent, local and social activist, and positive lifestyle advocate. He also held posts in research, and conflict work, a.o. for the Palestinian - Israeli peace village Wahat al Salam ~ Neve Shalom. He holds a BA in history and politics from SOAS and two Master degrees, in Urban Sociology (Goldsmiths) and Sports Coaching (Brunel) and tweets under @zylbersztajn
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9 Responses to Air Pollution, bollocks and its mayor. A judgement to finally save us!

  1. Ewa says:

    Amen ! I couldn’t agree more.
    I have 2 buses, a lorry, 3 cars and a taxi idling outside my home right now, stopped at a pointless traffic light. At least keep traffic flowing.

  2. Simon says:

    Actually the diesel Routemaster buses date from 1954, which is after the 1952 withdrawal of London’s first generation trams. The Routemaster buses were introduced to replace the trolleybuses (ie: electrically powered buses, of which at one time London had over 1800). The trolleybuses succumbed in 1962.

    Maybe you have not heard of the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) air pollution study that was conducted on behalf of the London Borough of Wandsworth which found that despite representing just 10% of the traffic flow the buses which travel along Putney High Street contributed over two-thirds of the NOx emissions and 21% of the particulate (PM) emissions!

    The study also found that overall cars formed two-thirds of the total vehicle flow and contributed to just 14% of NOx emissions and 35% of PM emissions.

    So, simply reducing traffic will not achieve the aims you desire. Even with the ULEZ and clean electric delivery vehicles the greatest benefit will only when the diesel buses have been replaced with street-based pure electric public transports!

    So yes, if we are serious about reducing air pollution then trams should return to London’s streets in the guise of the Cross River tramway, but in addition London’s buses should be electrified. The only bus technology which is proven as viable and mature and can power a bus for a full day’s work is the trolleybus. Maybe its time for their comeback too?

    Information about the air pollution reports can be found at these links:

    http://trl.co.uk/reports-publications/trl-reports/report/?reportid=6739
    http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/news/article/10992/joint_campaign_for_putney_green_bus_zone

    Notes: trams have already returned to Croydon in South London.
    Please don’t be hoodwinked by snakeoil salesmen suggesting hybrid buses as a way to clean up London’s air; hybrids are polluting diesel buses with an electric drive train.

    • Excellent points and I totally agree. Part of the big problem for Kings Cross is all the Taxi’s queuing to pick up from St Pancras / Kings Cross that by necessity keep their engines running as they keep creeping forward.

      TFL should have forced Taxis to petrol / electric hybrid many years ago. The Taxi companies could have bought a system from Toyota (after all most of them use Toyota diesel engines). They even do larger engined versions than in the Prius for their hybrid Lexus SUVs, this would have least have stopped this queuing problem. But longer term full EV is the answer. Again there is an off the shelf solution – Tesla lifted all their patents for others to use.

      The one good thing you can say about Uber, based in Kings Cross above Tesco, is that most of their drivers use Prius’s. And Toyota developed their hybrid / petrol drive trains for air quality reasons, not low CO2.

      The other thing TFL can do is change the current congestion charge rules and stop sub 100g diesel cars being exempt and allow all petrol hybrids to remain exempt.

      Islington and Camden Councils can do their bit by installing more EV charge points and encouraging Tesla et al to install more points. We should have a Tesla Supercharger in the area.

      Re buses, I’ve long thought Trolley Buses are the way forward. Indeed the new Boris Routemasters are ripe for conversion as they already actually move totally by EV power. Just rip out the diesel generators and install pantographs on the roof.

  3. cliff bartle says:

    Get rid of hgv and heavily polluting buses, and end the excluded road network in london fot those of us on the south circular. We should all unite against this pollution

  4. And what about roadworks? The roadworks outside our house, where they use noxious chemicals to repair the roads, resurface the pavements etc. cause additional noxious fumes and dirt that covers our windows. Euston Road and Russell Square are the most polluted streets in the UK! As for “Ken Livingstone” wanting to bring in a tram route at the back of Kings Cross that never happened, it wasn’t him, but anyway privatisation of all the bus and rail networks put paid to any intelligent development of transport in London. The tram route would have been brilliant, once Boris is kicked into touch and we get a Labour mayor of London it could be brought back, that should be a question to ask at the hustings for Labour candidate for London mayor that will begin after 7 May.

    • Personally I think an electric tram in all directions would be very sensible including a North bound (old stoke Newington bound line?) Though it would take a chaotic few years period of construction. Not speaking as an expert, but in most cities trams have become an asset.

  5. Islington Council has commissioned a “source aportionment” study to properly identify where the main pollutants in our atmosphere originate. It is due to be published shortly. It confirms the main sources are taxis, buses and HGVs. As Daniel says, taxis and buses can be reasonably quickly replaced with low pollution models. HGVs are a bit harder. So, in central London, we should remove them altogether. Most HGVs passing through KX for example are not servicing businesses anywhere near. One other thing we discovered: the ULEZ will allow diesels that conform to the “Euro 6” definition. The industry is very chuffed about Euro 6 because they say it is low emission. Sadly that’s only true in laboratory conditions or on long haul driving. In stop-start, slow speed conditions (pretty much most urban settings), Euro 6 standard diesel engines emit just about the same NO2 and particulates as conventional diesel. So, Mayor Johnson is selling a pup. That’s also a reason why Islington Council opposed the ULEZ extension because it isn’t going to deliver ultra low emissions at all. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_emission_standards for more.

    • Ewa says:

      Well, Paul, that’s what we have-buses, taxis and HGVs idling outside our homes all day and night, er, thanks to you.
      And Islington council knew this was going to happen…”The modelling results indicated that whilst the proposals would increase degree of saturation levels and queue lengths at affected junctions, they would still be within acceptable boundaries. ”
      How wrong in every way.
      4 residents have had their medication increased because of the exhaust fumes.

  6. Pingback: The high cost of convenience | Positive Greenford

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