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.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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