London, Paris, And The Pollution Problem

london mistLondon’s pollution problem is on the agenda at Mayor’s Question Time again today, with the mayor to be asked about the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and his plans for improving the capital’s air quality.

The idea behind the ULEZ is to prevent more polluting vehicles from entering central London, though as we wrote in February, the details aren’t ironed out and there’s also the question over whether the ULEZ would spell an end to the Congestion Charge as we know it.

Faced with rising levels of pollution in Paris, the French government took drastic measures and banned every car with a registration ending in an even number from the city’s roads on Monday, while making public transport free for three days. The Greek capital of Athens has also toyed with temporary bans — in 1995 a three-month ban was imposed and authorities have also made use of the same odd/even system  that Paris did. Boris Johnson has said a firm mais non to implementing the Paris pollution measures in London, saying that long term proposals like the ULEZ, hybrid buses and low emission taxis mean emergency steps aren’t needed. Arguably, he’s right — what’s the point of banning half the vehicles for a day or two only to see pollution creep up again in subsequent weeks? There’s also the consequence that pollution hotspots are simply moved from one area to another, much like what happened with congestion when the C-Charge was first introduced.

City Hall is very keen on showing their clean air credentials, but Clean Air in London say that London’s air pollution for nitrogen dioxide was worse than that for Paris twice during recent smog. Boris Johnson was also criticised during 2012 for what was described as an attempt to ‘cheat’ monitors by using a spray to glue pollution to the roads, a short-term measure if ever we saw one. The EU has also repeatedly threatened legal action against the UK over what it terms ‘excessive’ pollution levels.

The ULEZ does, however, have some perhaps unintended potential side effects. If plans do go ahead to restrict central London to all but low or zero emission cars, classic and historic vehicles may be caught up in the legislation. Classic and Sports Car magazine has launched a campaign to gain exemptions, citing popular events such as the Regent Street Motor Show and London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. If you balance this out against London’s air pollution deaths then obviously it’s comparatively trivial, but it does at least demonstrate the variety of things under consideration for ULEZ legislation.

Of course, the everyday risks of a total ban under the ULEZ are obvious. Pollution is reduced but not congestion, as those who can afford it buy cars which comply with legislation (as has happened with the C-Charge) while those who can’t are forced onto increasingly expensive public transport. And the risks of some sort of half-measure such as imposing an extra charge again means whose who can afford it will pay anyway as well as being not exactly what the EU was intending. And free public transport like Paris enjoyed for three days costs. The head of the city’s transport authority estimated it at €4m per day (£3.36m) and we can’t see TfL agreeing to work that into their budget.

Photo by Paul Shears in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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  • andybrice

    It also strikes me that the odd/even system is easy to circumvent if you’re wealthy enough to own more than one car and simply buy different number plates for each.

    • http://gplus.to/casalotti Andrea Casalotti

      In most European countries you cannot swap the number plate from one car to another. Still in car-slave Italy many families have two cars and they make sure that they have an even and an odd number.

  • http://gplus.to/casalotti Andrea Casalotti

    Odd that you can have such a long article about polluting transport choices and not once mention active travel choices such as walking and cycling.

    Many Europeans are bemused by the English blindness to the obvious fact that investment in walking and cycling, making them safe and pleasant, has a very high return.

  • Beth Williams

    One simple, cheap and effective action that could be taken across London is a huge tree planting programme. Trees are one of the best ways of removing particles from the polluted atmosphere. It is a pity that our local authorities cannot be bothered to invest a small proportion of the money received from parking fines for such useful work.