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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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