Cities across the globe are leading the charge on clean air policies. But British ones can do more

Oh, no: air pollution in action. Image: Getty.

Last 21 June was Clean Air Day – and leaders of the UK’s 14 largest cities, all of which have illegal levels of air pollution, marked the occasion by calling on the government to do more to address these issues. In particular, the mayors have called for the government to accelerate its proposed ban on diesel and petrol cars by a decade, which would mean phasing out these vehicles by 2030; and to introduce clean air zones across the UK and a scrappage scheme to help car owners replace their high-emission cars.

This focus from city leaders is welcome, given that air pollution is primarily an urban problem. As highlighted in the recent Centre for Cities briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’, UK cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. The main culprit is unsurprisingly road transport, and in particular diesel vehicles, which are responsible for 80 and 35 per cent of NO2 roadside concentration respectively.

As such, while national government policies to tackle air quality problems are important, the onus is on cities to address these problems – and we’ve already seen progress on this front in recent years. 

London, with its greater devolved powers, has been leading the way – historically, with the launch of the congestion charge zone in 2003, and more recently with the introduction of the Toxicity charge (or T-charge). In addition, mayor Sadiq Khan recently confirmed a forthcoming expansion of the ultra-low emission zone to North and South Circular Roads.

Other cities are also catching on. Sheffield was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, including plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock. Leeds is due to introduce a new fleet of low-emission buses, and Greater Manchester’s metro mayor Andy Burnham wants to accelerate the timeline for achieving carbon neutrality ahead of the national commitment of 2050.

However, most UK cities could do more to cut carbon and drive efficiency, using the powers at their disposal, in particular with regards to the single biggest contributor: car usage. And with the government having mandated 28 local authorities across 12 cities to develop plans to clean air plans (due at the end of this year), city leaders need to act soon.

Our clean air briefing highlights a number of approaches championed by cities across the globe, which UK cities could also adapt to tackle air pollution in their area:

1. Restricting vehicle access and reducing idling

In Paris, a sticker system is used to restrict vehicle access into city centres. Vehicles are split into six categories, depending on how heavily polluting they are according to European emissions standards, and the most polluting have been banned from the city. Moreover, any vehicle can be refused entrance in response to high levels of pollution on a given day. To mitigate adverse consequences and to encourage low-pollution transport, the city makes public transport free during these periods.

In a similar vein, New-York City introduced an anti-idling law in 2009 to reduce unnecessary emissions from idling vehicles parking or stopping. In particular areas, it is forbidden to idle in a vehicle for longer than three minutes while parking, waiting or stopping. This is even stricter around schools, where the time allowed is just one minute.


2. Changing the flow of traffic and promoting cycling and walking

Barcelona and Copenhagen have both adopted approaches to promote cycling and walking. Barcelona’s urban mobility plan focuses on the idea of superblocks – the idea of redirecting traffic in grids around small neighbourhoods, with space within these superblocks dedicated to pedestrian and cycling public space. Through this, the city hopes to shift preferences from driving to walking and cycling.

Similarly, Copenhagen has invested in infrastructure to make cycling easier, faster and safer, thus achieving its goal to become the best cycling city in the world. Policies include set requirements for bike space per employee for commercial buildings, and bike parking space for residential developments. There are also cycling superhighways connecting the suburbs and inner-city areas, and large areas of the city centre are closed for motor vehicles.

3. Introducing a congestion charge

Milan is one of five cities across the world which has introduced congestion charges in their central area. The €5 tax is charged between 7.30am to 7.30pm. In addition, vehicles entering the area must fulfil a minimum emission standard and diesel vehicles must be equipped with a particulate filter. Electric vehicles have free access and hybrid cars are exempt until a set date. The profits are used to reinvest in policies that promote sustainable mobility and reduce air pollution.

Implementing these ideas in UK cities will not necessarily be easy, as suggested by the response among politicians in Greater Manchester when we proposed a congestion charge in the city region. But as places finalise their clean air strategies, they will need to take tough decisions to get to grips with pollution and the associated health and social problems it brings – and that may mean going against the grain of popular opinion.

Maja Gustafsson is an intern with the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.