London should clean up its air pollution – but it must ensure the right people pay

Rush hour in London. Image: Getty.

As London prepares to launch its ultra low emission zone (Ulez) on Monday, the latest reports are that nitrogen dioxide levels in the city are falling – but that 2 million people in London are still living with illegal levels of air pollution.

Ever since a few industrialists worked out how to make money from burning things, air pollution has always mapped on to power (or lack of it). Miners suffer from black lung. Mill workers suffer from brown lung. Factory workers develop lung cancer, construction workers develop asbestosis, children in London die from asthma. Air pollution in London is now so bad it is halting lung development in infants and killing others. Barely a single Londoner believes their air quality does not need improving.

And yet aspects of the mayor’s Ulez are proving hugely controversial, particularly with people who rely on a vehicle for a living. Accompanying the new low emission zone is the expansion of the existing congestion charge to include private hire drivers. These drivers are objecting, not to the emissions zone itself, but to the fact that they – rather than companies like Uber – are shouldering the burden of the charges.

The United Private Hire Drivers are a branch of the IWGB union, which New Economics Foundation (NEF) organisers like me have worked closely with in trying to tackle precarious work. They say the new charges will amount to a 25 per cent cut in incomes for some of their members. While private hire drivers – 94 per cent of whom are BAME – will pay the extra charge, majority-white black cab drivers are exempt. Because of this, United Private Hire Drivers is taking legal action against the mayor on the grounds of discrimination.

It is hard to avoid the irony that while black communities in London are disproportionately exposed to the effects of dirty air, it is BAME workers that are expected to pay for its cleanup. London’s air pollution problem desperately needs fixing, but Ulez will hit the wrong people the hardest. It is a perfect example of what happens when environmental policy is imposed from above, without actively listening those who are the most impacted. The gilets jaunes movement in France has become a demonstration of the opposition that can form when people view environmental policy as unfair.

And this problem is not specific to London. Fifty miles down the road, Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council are making the same mistakes.


I’ve been working with Basingstoke Clean Air Campaign, a group of people living and working in one of the worst offending towns for air pollution in the country. The last rapid expansion of Basingstoke led to a hastily thrown up concrete jungle designed entirely around the car, resulting in dizzying numbers of roundabouts, a ring road, and lots of pollution. And now 15,300 new homes are planned to be built there by 2029, with little planning for anti-pollution measures. In fact, soon after being named in the Client Earth High Court Judgement as an authority required to reduce air pollution, it decided to stop recycling some plastics in favour of burning them.

After months of campaigning from the Clean Air Campaign, the council announced some lacklustre plans, including giving residents thousands of plastic bumper stickers for cars, to spread the important message – presumably to cars already idling in traffic – that cars cause air pollution.

Residents were predictably unimpressed, and 70 of them came to a public meeting organised by the campaign group and NEF. In a testament to resident involvement, they talked in detail about how public transport and cycle routes could be improved, how energy efficient homes could be built, and how people could be supported to work, commute and consume less. They ended by each writing to the councillor in charge of environment to meet with them – and a month later, not one of them has heard back.

Without local authorities seriously listening to the people who are most affected by environmental problems, they risk either playing down the scale of the problem, developing policy that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged, or both.

Becki Winson is an organiser with the New Economics Foundation.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

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