Lockdown has massively reduced London’s air pollution

Air pollution over London, April 2007. Image: Getty.

This is not unexpected, but is cheery nonetheless: lockdown has meant a radical improvement in London’s air quality. 

According to figures released by the City of London Corporation – the baffling body which, among other things, is the municipal council for the British capital’s historic business district – nitrogen dioxide levels in the area have reduced around 35% since the beginning of lockdown. Here’s a graph:

Pollution levels at Upper Thames Street. Image: Corporation of London.

All this is probably connected to the fact that around half of London’s air pollution comes from road transport. That’s a particular problem in the City, where a combination of tall buildings and narrow streets makes it difficult for the resulting pollutants to escape. It feels like a marker of the seachange the crisis has meant in London’s transport policy that the press release announcing all this includes the sentence, “Nearly half of car trips made by Londoners before the coronavirus lockdown could be cycled in around ten minutes.”

While we’re on this topic, press-coverage loving sat nav app Waze has released figures showing that, since lockdown began, the UK has seen a 70% fall in kilometres driven on the levels recorded in mid-February. (Technically, it just shows a 70% fall in the kilometres for which drivers are using Waze, but it’s probably reasonable to assume that’s the same thing.)

The company released this graph, showing changes in driving levels across some of England’s major cities:

Image: Waze.

What is going on with Liverpool in early March I have no idea.

Here’s one more, showing the same figures at a national level:

Image: Waze.

You can see that the UK and US were slower to lockdown. Also, strangely, that Waze users in those countries, especially the US, are more likely to drive on the weekend.

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.