London should embrace digital technology to clean up its dirty air

Less of this. Image: Getty.

The mayor of London’s plan to introduce the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by April 2019 is a very important step in reducing London’s lethal and illegal air pollution. This air pollution is attributable to over 9,400 early deaths per year; the negative health effects it causes fall particularly hard on children and low income communities. The greatest source of this pollution is road transport and, especially, the diesel engine.

It is going to be a long journey to clean London’s dirty air: modelling IPPR commissioned from King’s College London has shown that the air pollution problem is highly entrenched. This is because of how much Londoners rely on polluting vehicles to get around and do business. We are going to need less and more efficient journeys, as well as cleaner vehicles.

Getting there will come at quite a cost. This will be felt by drivers, as the cost of using more polluting vehicles increases, and by London’s government, as it builds the infrastructure needed to make the transition to a less polluted city.

Of course, the mayor cannot actually ban polluting vehicles and, even if he could, an overnight solution is neither politically nor economically feasible. So we would do well to remember that the ULEZ is a cost we must all share in order to make the city cleaner and stop Londoners from getting ill.

But we also need help in bearing this cost. This can come in two ways:

1. Support from central government.

Air pollution is a national problem that needs a national solution, including, and especially, a national diesel scrappage scheme that helps people out of dirty vehicles.

2. Through London embracing new ways of getting around the city that have been opened up by digital technology.

The potential of these technologies is extraordinary, as we argue in a recent report. New modes of travel enabled by digital technology, including Uber and car clubs, like DriveNow and Zipcar, are increasingly disrupting London's transport.

This disruption is already leading to positive effects, as is the case with car clubs, for example, which lower car use and ownership and are much cleaner than the average private car. This disruption could also have negative effects, as is feared with Uber – but, crucially, it is through a network in which these technologies interact with one another that they could have a transformative effect.

Recent studies by the International Transport Forum show that a network of shared transport could reduce the number of vehicles in a city down to 3 per cent of current numbers. This would be revolutionary: imagine a traffic jam of one hundred cars being reduced down to just three.

And less vehicles means less roads which means that the city could be re-planned. Parks could be expanded, cycle lanes made safe. Air pollution, congestion and carbon emissions would be reduced to low levels, leading to enormous health and economic benefits. And the cost of travelling would fall, with the high costs of owning and servicing a vehicle disappearing for many people.

Crucially, such a “win-win” situation relies on the mayor turning London into a leader in the adoption of new transport technology. Indeed, if he doesn't, a future of negative network effects is made more likely – one in which cheap private hire vehicles clog up the streets, crowding out bus use and raising air pollution, and large multinational tech firms increasingly take control.

Indeed, innovative transport firms are already leaving these shores, which damages London’s ability to adopt these new technologies – a dangerous outcome as Britain and London chart a new course outside of Europe.

London is at risk from missing this extraordinary opportunity. In response, we recommend that the mayor incorporate a vision and framework for new transport technologies into the upcoming Mayor’s Transport Strategy. This should be a vision in which shared transport and digital technology are able to realise their potential in driving positive transport outcomes.

If the mayor delivers on that vision, then London will cement its global leadership. For now, London is at a crossroads; the mayor must act.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a senior research fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.

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Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

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

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL