London's air is choking the city. Pollution from vehicles is damaging the economy, a threat to public health and the environment.
Cleaning up London's air will not happen overnight, but this week the city has taken a step in the right direction with the introduction of the new Toxicity charge (T-charge for short). The intention of the mayor's T-charge is clear: discourage older, more polluting vehicles from driving into the centre of town, where pollution levels are at their worst.
This was the second policy introduced by Sadiq Khan to improve air quality in little over two weeks. Earlier this month, the mayor announced his ambitions for London to meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines for particulate matter by 2030.
This is an ambitious yet crucially important target that no UK politician has previously set out to achieve. It is ambitious because WHO guidelines are more rigorous than those set by the EU – and many of London’s busiest roads currently exceed them.
I have advocated for many years that key to achieving this aspiration is a reduction in the number of vehicles, both personal and commercial. The T-charge is a step towards achieving this. But if London is going to meet WHO air quality standards, the mayor is going to need to continue to push forward pioneering policies.
The Commission on the Future of London’s Roads and Streets – an independent group of transport and environmental experts – published a report of bold measures to tackle air pollution, traffic congestion and ill health experienced by those that live, work and study in the capital.
Its report neatly outlines the shift from mobility as a product (i.e. the private car) to ‘Mobility as a Service’ that considers how to exploit the potential of new transport technologies, to create seamless end-to-end journeys. For example, an integrated transport information and payment system promises to provide status updates and auto re-routing functions to facilitate travel choices, and ensure journeys are safe, efficient and competitively priced.
The introduction of the T-charge, endorsement of London’s ambitious and quantifiable PM2.5 2030 target and the Commission’s radical recommendations to manage the conflicting pressures on road transport and public realm fall within a few weeks of one another. This bodes well for the capital – If the promises and opportunities can skilfully be harnessed and taken forth with political courage and the necessary investment.
But the problem of air pollution and the need to reappraise our transport systems is not confined to London. The same issues face city dwellers in the UK’s other major urban areas, up and down the country and they should not be left behind.
To this end, the ambition and vision for change in London should trigger action from central and other local governments to give all our major cities the potential to become cleaner, healthier and economically successful places to live, work and visit.
Frank Kelly is a Professor of Environmental Health at King's College London.