LLast Friday everyone living in London was told to avoid strenuous physical activity. An area of intense high pressure meant that pollutants were being captured in the air, rather than being carried away as usual. The government predicted that the highest level of pollution – band 10 – would be reached, with air pollution at its highest level recorded since March 2018. living with lung and heart disease – rather than encouraging the drivers to adopt more sustainable transport options or limit their journeys. But, as a report published on Tuesday shows, the climate crisis will not be tackled effectively without a real reduction in traffic.
If London is to be a city that works for everyone – including drivers – it needs to make a serious move towards a future with fewer private cars on its streets. That’s why I was so heartened to see the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, acknowledging that traffic needs to drop by at least 27% in the capital to meet our climate targets. While I would say we could be more ambitious, Khan’s goal is impressive compared to the mayor’s transportation strategy from 2018, and marks real progress. Around the world, cities that have reduced the number of cars have become better places to live and work: cleaner, safer, with healthier residents who have the opportunity to get around in different ways, rather than rely on private cars.
London’s new deputy mayor for transport, Seb Dance, recently said that car driving would soon be “socially unacceptable”, a “dead point” in transport history, and I wholeheartedly agree. I live in one of London’s most polluted areas, Tower Hamlets. And, although it has one of the lowest motorization rates in the country, the borough suffers from the fact that three main roads – the A11, A12 and A13 – cross it directly. Tower Hamlets is one of the country’s most culturally vibrant areas – its rich history of political activism is, quite literally, painted on the walls. Yes, it is beautiful, with quays, parks, mosques and museums. But on bad days, the air pollution is almost palpable. The impact of transportation emissions on the health of residents here, including reduced lung capacity in children, is well documented.
Internationally, these problems are also increasingly recognized: in 2020, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, wins a second term on a campaign platform advocating the reduction of traffic. Hidalgo has proposed turning Paris into a “15-minute city”, in which most daily tasks can be accomplished in short walks or bike rides, while Berlin plans to introduce a car-free zone the size of Manhattan. The German capital has already installed 385 miles of dedicated cycle lanes, and plenty of public transport options mean the car is no longer immediately the best option. Decision-makers across Europe, and the rest of the world, are finally heeding the warnings and witnessing, first-hand, the negative impacts of air pollution: impacts, I might add, that are strikingly disproportionate communities of color and low-income members. households, which tend to live in these areas with poorer air quality. Fortunately, the leaders come to the same conclusion: the domination of the car must end.
Smart pricing measures – which would charge drivers for journeys based on factors such as distance travelled, time and location – will play a major role in reducing traffic on the streets. Such a system could help Transport for London raise desperately needed funds to maintain and improve the city’s public transport system – while freeing up the city’s roads for essential vehicles, including emergency services, transport elderly and disabled people, taxis and other workers who need to drive.
The need to radically rethink car use in London, and all our cities, is something we can no longer ignore. London must be bold if it is to match Paris, Berlin and other pioneering cities in the global fight against climate breakdown. Implementing strategies such as smart road user pricing will put London City Hall in a leading position in this regard. It’s something that makes me proud to live in London – to be a citizen of a city that is making real waves in its efforts to tackle the climate crisis and the prevalence of car ownership. A city that is ready to ask serious questions about what it might look like in the decades to come and that offers innovative ideas for other urban centers around the world.