Coronavirus has suddenly given British cities cleaner air. They’ve responded by delaying clean air measures

Manchester, empty. Image: Getty.

One of the few upsides to this global pandemic, if there can be such a thing, has been what it’s done, at least temporarily, for air quality. A precipitous fall in traffic on the roads has in many places meant a fall in air pollution levels, too. All that’s meant that, for those who are still braving the suddenly empty streets, the experience has been unusually pleasant.

Doing so is not always easy, of course: many of Britain’s pavements are so narrow that it’s all but impossible to pass someone on foot without breaching social distancing rules. To combat that, and to lock the current benefits in, large chunks of the country’s nascent urbanism community has been pushing for the UK to use the crisis to rethink how much space it gives over to cars permanently. Last month, several dozen transport researchers signed an open letter calling on the government to “protect the right to walk and cycle safely... [free] from risk of infection and traffic injury”. In an accompanying submission, the charity Sustrans called for “emergency infrastructure, such as bollards and better lighting to make cycling and walking safer for travel to work and shops”.

Some councils are taking such calls seriously. On Tuesday, the Times reported that Manchester had closed Tib Street to traffic, using cones to create two temporary cycle lanes through the city’s Northern Quarter. Both the city of Brighton & Hove and the east London borough of Hackney, meanwhile, are drawing up lists of streets to go car-free. Such schemes would improve quality of life for pedestrians and cyclists, of course; but the resulting reduction in traffic will also mean positive externalities in the form of cleaner air for everyone, including those who still need to drive.

In other ways, though, the coronavirus crisis has sent what few moves Britain’s cities were making towards cleaner air into reverse. Since 2015, in an attempt to address the fact its cities have some of the worst air pollution in Europe, the government has been planning to introduce “clean air zones”, systems which will use cameras to monitor city centres in Birmingham, Leeds and Bath, and issue fines to drivers of vehicles that don’t meet emissions standards. To enter the zone bounded by the Birmingham Middleway ring road, for example, drivers of pollution-spewing private cars or other smaller vehicles will have to pay £8; for heavy goods vehicles, it’ll be an eye-watering £50. This, it is hoped, will improve air quality, if not discourage driving altogether.

A map of the Birmingham Clean Air Zone. Image: Birmingham City Council.

The launch date for these zones had already slipped from January 2020 to this summer. But now, thanks to the crisis, they won’t arrive before January 2021 at the earliest. 

Meanwhile, Manchester has abandoned its consultation on plans for its own clean air zone, and Oxford has delayed its “zero emissions zone”, an area of the city centre in which only zero emission vehicles can enter, from December to next summer. London, meanwhile, has suspended existing traffic measures including the congestion charge and low emission zone, until further notice.

All this feels like a backward step. As Jon Burke, Hackney’s cabinet member for transport, tweeted on Thursday: “Even in the midst of a health crisis exacerbated by air pollution; even though air pollution already claims the lives of 40,000 people a year; politicians and council officers up and down the land are using coronavirus as an excuse not to do their job.” 

That may be a little unfair: a time of economic crisis, in which large chunks of the population aren’t meant to leave their homes at all, is probably not the ideal moment to roll out policies involving a lot of software and cameras. Nonetheless, this backsliding on anti-pollution measures does serve to highlight quite how difficult it will be to wean our cities off motor vehicles. Large numbers of people are crying out to clean up the streets right now. If not now, when?

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


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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