Four international lessons on how London could cut air pollution

London. We think. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, Sadiq Khan unveiled his ‘Cleaner Vehicle Checker’, a joint bid with Paris to help curb the air quality crisis engulfing both cities. The problem of air pollution is aligned with a wider issue: London’s roads and streets are not coping with the pressures they are facing.

London’s problems are not unique, and so as the mayor looks abroad for partnerships, what lessons can it learn from other cities? Nowhere is wholly comparable, nor does any solution tackle every problem, but lessons can be learnt: parking efficiency improved, encouraging shifts from cars to public transit, promoting active modes and improving the quality of place.

Parking

It is thought around 30 per cent of urban congestion is caused by cars looking for parking. San Francisco deals with this via block-by-block demand-based street parking prices, using sensor technology. Prices change no more than monthly, and rise by no more than 25¢ per hour, nor falling by more than 50¢, in one go. Results are promising: vehicle miles travelled in pilot districts fell 30 per cent, and average searching time decreased by five minutes.

Drivers in London typically spend eight minutes searching for somewhere to park, so change could be effective. But parking places are often in high demand, and it’s a hot political topic – Westminster’s Council Leader stepped down in 2012 amid a row over proposed increases.

Promoting public transport use

London’s private car use is slowly falling, but we should be looking at radical methods to reduce ownership and usage. In Murcia, Spain, residents could swap roadworthy vehicles for lifetime passes on their new tramway network.

In London, such an initiative would face issues around funding and logistics, but it offers two lessons: financial incentives to trade in cars are reasonable to discourage use; while people are happy to surrender their cars when public transport provides a convenient alternative.


Walking and cycling

In New York and Paris over half of central journeys are on foot; the London figure is just over one third. Though London’s centre is much more dispersed, we can do better.

Paris has been aiming to increase its attractiveness to pedestrians since 2001, but a turning point was introducing the Pedestrian Paris Initiative in 2012. The scheme has seen pavements widened and Parisians now engage with their streets more, aided by some streets closing to cars one Sunday a month, which also improves air quality and encourages active modes.

Cycling is rising in the capital – inner London saw it rise from 2.5 to 4 per cent of trips in a decade, equivalent to 120,000 journeys, according to a TfL survey  – but there are still ways to increase its attractiveness. To combat the frustration of hitting red lights, which affects journey reliability, Utrecht uses a system of sensors determining a cyclist’s speed, telling them to slow down or speed up to make a green light. Connected to wider dynamic light systems, it highlights small actions that persuade people to cycle regularly.

Public space as a priority

New York underwent a transformation over 2007-2013, thanks to the work of Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner. Her redesign focused around Broadway, installing 60 plazas, and the development of the High Line.

London has made progress in particular areas and employed innovative solutions to problems, but can still follow New York in making public spaces more attractive, improving perception and reality for walkers and pedestiran. Enhancing the public realm could have economic effects, as workers want to work in cities where high quality public spaces facilitates a higher quality of life.

London needs strong leadership – à la New York and Paris – in City Hall and the boroughs to revive our public realm, to create a healthier, cleaner and more successful city.

Tom Colthorpe is a researcher at Centre for London. The think tank has convened an expert Commission to analyse the problems facing London’s roads and streets. It will get different parties to cooperate and will propose solutions, in a report due out later this year.

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More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.