Medellín's smog is so bad that the mayor is cancelling sporting events

Colombia’s second city has been forced to take drastic measures to combat the dizzying levels of pollution that the city is experiencing.

Medellín (the name is pronounced “Me-de-jeen”, by the way) was once famed for being the world’s former murder capital. Today, it’s seen as an innovation and tourist hub, too.

But, according to pollution watch-dog AQICN.org, the city currently has worse pollution than Mexico City (another Latin American city famed for its poor air quality). At the time of writing, the north of Medellín is experiencing pm2.5 levels – the number of micrograms of particles smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre across in an average cubic metre of air – of 154 µg/m3. That’s two points higher than the most polluted area of Mexico City, and 15 times higher than recommended safe levels.

In response to the crisis, over the weekend, the city’s mayor, Federico Gutiérrezn, issued orders banning cars and motorcycles from the road for 27 hours, and restricted the when and where dumpster trucks can operate in the coming days. He even announced the suspension of outdoor activities – including sports events and cycle paths – to protect citizens’ health.


The move followed a brief spell the previous week that saw Medellín Olaya Herrera – the city’s smaller, domestic airport – close. Although now re-opened, local sources are unsure as to how long the airport will continue to operate while pollution levels continue to increase.

In a press statement, Gutierrez explained that Medellín’s bowl-like geography – the city lies in the middle of the Andean Aburrá Valley – has played a significant role in the city’s pollution crisis. “The landscape helps accumulate the pollutants emitted in the valley,” he said. But he added that everyone who pollutes had, in some way, contributed to the current problems.

Medellín’s government first declared an emergency over the city’s air quality in the middle of March, citing a lack of rain, and the effects of weather phenomenon El Niño for the problem. Causing extreme heat and a lack of rain, the effects of El Niño have been further exacerbated by forest fires and dust particles from the Sahara Desert. The result of all this is that pollution has collected in the Aburrá Valley instead of dispersing.

That said, of course, the largest contribution to the dangerous pollution levels comes from the human population. In recent years the proportion of Medellín’s 3m inhabitants that own a car or a motorbike has increased. And while the government has introduced contamination limits for vehicles in Medellín – including for trucks and buses – these often go ignored.

Medellín is not the only city in Latin America to ban cars from the roads this week, either. Authorities in Mexico City have also ordered that all vehicles must remain off the roads for one day a week, in a bid to quickly lower the proportion of pm2.5 particles in the air. The Mexican capital has often struggled with pollution levels: like its Colombian counterpart it sits in a bowl from which it is difficult for pollutants to escape.

Medellín now awaits the arrival of rains in April that will help wash the pollution away. Hopefully.

 
 
 
 

So what was actually in Grant Shapps’ latest transport masterplan?

A tram in Manchester. Image: Getty.

Poor Grant Shapps. This weekend, the UK’s transport secretary unveiled a fairly extensive package of measures intended to make sure Britons can keep moving about during the Covid-19 crisis. On Saturday, he fronted the government’s daily afternoon press briefing; on Sunday, he did the rounds of the morning political shows. 

And were those nasty mean journalists interested in his plans for bicycle repair vouchers, or the doubling of the A66? No they were not: all they wanted to ask about was reports that the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown he himself had helped draw up. The rotten lot.

This is, from some perspectives a shame, because some of the plans aren’t bad. Here’s a quick run down. 

  • The government is releasing a total of £283m to increase frequencies on bus (£254m) and light rail (£29m) networks, enabling more people to travel while maintaining social distancing. 

  • It’s deploying 3,400 people – British Transport Police officers; staff from train operators and Network Rail – to stations, to advise passengers on how to travel safely.

  • It’s promising to amend planning laws to enable councils to reallocate road space and create emergency cycle lanes, using a £225m pot of funding announced earlier this month. 

  • It’s also spending £25m on half a million £50 bike repair vouchers, and £2.5m on adding 1,180 bike parking spaces at 30 railway stations.

All this sounds lovely, but announcements of this sort tend to throw up a few questions, and this is no exception. The UK is home to over 2,500 railway stations, which must raise doubts about whether a few extra bike parking spaces at 30 of them is going to be enough to spark a cycling revolution. And councillors say that £225m for new cycle lanes has been slow to materialise in council bank accounts.

As to the money for public transport: that £29m will be shared between tram networks in five English conurbations (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Tyne & Wear, Nottingham, Sheffield). Just under £6m each doesn’t sound like the big bucks.

Then there’s the fact that all of these pots of money are dwarfed by the £1bn the government is planning to spend on turning the A66 Transpennine route across the north of England, from Workington to Middlesbrough, into a dual carriageway. Which puts the money allocated to cycling into perspective.

That said, it is refreshing to see the government taking an interest in cycling at all. Also, Grant Shapps genuinely tried to distract the nation from a huge political scandal by talking about bike repair vouchers, and you’ve got to give him credit for that.

More details of the plan on gov.uk here.

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