British cities cannot afford to stall longer on tackling air pollution

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Last week a High Court judge ruled that the government’s plan to tackle air pollution is “unlawful”, and that it must do more to improve air quality across the country. In particular, the judge stated that the Government should introduce legal requirements to force places which have illegal levels of air pollution to take action, rather than simply encouraging them to do so.

As the recent Centre for Cities’ briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’ showed, this problem is largely an urban one: cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. It’s clear, then, that the high court ruling will have big implications for cities across the country.

A map of NOx concentrations. Spot the cities.

As the judge’s ruling suggests, the government’s approach to tackling these problems has been to urge local leaders in the most affected areas to act, without to forcing them to do so. In total, it has mandated 28 mostly-urban local authorities, as well as the Greater London Authority, to develop local plans to tackle local pollution problems by the end of this year. They have also been tasked with considering the best options to achieve statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time.

However, the court case this week should signal a step change in this process. Indeed, the government’s response to the case was instructive, conceding that while it had previously taken a pragmatic, less formal approach “to encouraging places to act”, it will now “take a more formal line with them”. In other words, UK cities will have to take urgent action to address their pollution problems, or risk facing legal sanctions.

The good news is that cities have the powers and resources they need to start to take action. Our recent briefing set out steps that cities across the globe are taking to address their pollution problems, many of which could be replicated in UK cities – from Milan’s congestion charge, to Paris’s restrictions on car usage and New York’s laws against idling. Moreover, the government has made around £445m in funding available to local authorities to fund such measures.

Unsurprisingly, London – which is home to the highest levels of pollution, but which also holds the most extensive devolved powers of any UK city – has led the way in terms of tackling air quality problems. That includes the launch of the congestion charge in 2003, and the ‘Toxicity Charge’ (or T-charge) which the current mayor Sadiq Khan introduced in October last year.


Other cities are also tentatively starting to take steps to address these problems. Sheffield, for example, was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, which features plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock, and for anti-idling zones in front of schools. Cambridge is considering options for a congestion charge, while Oxford is examining the feasibility of introducing zero emissions zones.

However, for the most part, there has been a reluctance among city leaders to take the tough and potentially contentious decisions needed to improve air quality, and in particular to tackle the single biggest factor causing pollution – car usage.

This was illustrated last January when Centre for Cities published its three policy recommendations for the incoming metro mayor of Greater Manchester. One of the ideas we put forward was that the new mayor should introduce a congestion charge in Manchester city centre in order to reduce pollution and generate more funding for public transport. However, the idea was flatly rejected by all the mayoral candidates standing in the city region, perhaps reflecting the negative response it had provoked in local media.

Similarly, while Sheffield’s clean air strategy features some good ideas, it also explicitly rules out any measures to charge private car-users, again reflecting an awareness that such measures might be unpopular.

But the reality is that to get to grips with air quality problems, and all the associated issues they bring, from poor health outcomes to environmental damage, cities need to take difficult decisions – even if that means going against popular opinion.  Following last week’s court ruling, they might not have the luxury of idling on these issues any longer.

Brian Semple is head of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.