Is Manchester doing enough to fight its air pollution crisis?

Clouds over Manchester. Image: Getty.

In June 2018, think tank IPPR released a report calling Greater Manchester’s pollution levels “lethal and illegal”. The report called on mayor Andy Burnham to urgently ramp up measures to improve air quality and for central government to give him the tools to do so.

Yet one year on, the Northern Quarter Forum has had to fight tooth and nail to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours to celebrate Clean Air Week. This, coupled with the Great Ancoats Street fiasco – a multi-million pound plan to create a “European style boulevard” without any cycle infrastructure – raises red flags.

So what’s actually being done to fight Manchester’s air pollution crisis – and is it enough?

An ambitious pledge

Andy Burnham has pledged to make Manchester a leading green city in Europe. It’s an ambitious goal, considering central Manchester currently has the highest rate of emergency admissions for asthma in England – over double the national average – and Manchester is the second-worst council area in England for inhalable particulate matter. Greater Manchester is also the most congested region outside of London, with 152 roads in breach of legal NO2 levels.

The 152 roads in breach of air pollution levels. Image: TfGM.

 

All in all, 1,200 lives are lost each year due to air pollution. If that number is to be brought down to zero, Manchester better look for inspiration.

Oslo, European Green Capital 2019, prioritises pedestrians and cyclists in the city centre, and is transitioning to a completely car-free city centre. All public transport will run on renewable energy from 2020, and over 700 on-street parking spaces were removed, replaced with cycle lanes, pocket parks, and seating areas. Since the 1980’s Oslo has had tolled ring roads, and in 2017 introduced a further congestion charge.

The message is clear: becoming a leading green city means reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Switching to electric cars won’t be enough to save us, because worn tyres and brakes produce particulate matter, the micro plastic particles penetrating the deepest parts of our lungs and bloodstream.

What’s required, instead, is improved public transport – currently often both less convenient and more expensive than driving – as well as prioritising walking and cycling.

So with Burnham’s ambitious – and worthy – pledge in mind, let’s see what Manchester is doing.

Is enough being invested in public transport?

Last year, Burnham revealed his “Congestion Deal”, which includes a £122m Bus Priority Package (shepherding 9,000 more passengers a week) and spending £83m on 27 new trams. The deal also commits 40,000 more seats on commuter trains, and trebles the number of electric vehicle charging points in the region to 1,000.

Manchester’s Clean Air Plan also includes £116m government funded schemes for HGV’s, buses, taxis, and businesses upgrading to cleaner vehicles, as well as loans with preferential rates for those taking advantage of the funds.

While that may look like a lot of investment, it pales in comparison to the nearly £6bn being considered on road schemes. Moreover, research has repeatedly shown the benefits of road expansion are short-lived, “inducing” more car journeys leading to increased congestion and pollution overall.

The biggest cue for public transport in Manchester is Burnham’s recent proposal to franchise buses, bringing them back under public control. This will allow GMCA to develop a truly integrated public transport system and ensure all communities are served, not just those that are most profitable. It will also allow them to set the fares, bringing them in line with those in London; whereas it costs £4 in Greater Manchester for a single bus fare, the rate is currently capped at £1.50 in the capital.

That being said, there’s still a pressing need for more funding. When I asked the Clean Air Plan folk at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) what’s the one thing government could do to help, they told me this: “To agree a devolved multi-year transport funding settlement with Greater Manchester” that includes ongoing funding, “to help us to transform public transport services to meet modern expectations as people experience in other cities across Europe.”

Despite the progress being made, as long as central government doesn’t provide new funds – and the bulk of existing funding is pumped into motorways instead – Manchester won’t become a leading green city.


Is walking and cycling being prioritised?

Burnham’s Congestion Deal also outlined a “Streets for All” approach, in which streets would be designed “for all road users” to enable alternatives to driving.

Chris Boardman became Greater Manchester’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner in 2017 with an initial £160m earmarked to begin creating “Bee Network” safe cycle routes throughout the city – making Manchester a truly European city. That funding has now been allocated, and the first projects are coming to fruition.

However, it only accounts for 11 per cent of the £1.5bn needed to complete the Bee Network, and Boardman along with five other leading cycling commissioners are demanding government commit long-term funding to safe cycle infrastructure.

Boardman calls painted bike lanes a “waste of public money”, which encourage drivers to speed up, endangering cyclists. “Actual” bike infrastructure is needed, such as segregated cycle lanes.

He’s pointed out that government has recently agreed to spend £1.4bn on upgrading a roundabout near Bedford and building a new 10-mile dual carriageway – two projects that together may save drivers 10 minutes of travel. For the same price, Manchester could have a fully integrated cycle network that would revolutionise the way people travel around the city. Central and local government simply aren’t prioritising the measures needed to reduce air pollution.

That’s why Manchester City Council’s announcement of the £9.1m “Great Ancoats Street improvement scheme” – maintaining five lanes of motor traffic with no cycle infrastructure along one of the city’s most polluted and dangerous thoroughfares – has provoked anger and despair.

Cyclists protest on Great Ancoats Street. Image: David Saddington/author provided.

The council’s justification – “This scheme does not incorporate a segregated cycleway, as we need to balance the needs of different road users” – Illustrates a business-as-usual mindset of car dominated planning. It’s completely at odds with the scale of the challenge Manchester faces in turning around its air quality crisis.

There’s also a long way to go towards prioritising walking and cycling in the city centre. When Manchester City Council refused permission to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours for the community to celebrate Clean Air Week, Northern Quarter Forum members took matters into their own hands.

They developed a plan to reroute the 13 buses that traverse Lever Street and presented it to the Highways department (essentially having done their job for them). Then it was actually Labour party councillor Angeliki Stogia who took the reins and pushed the request through.

Apart from Stogia, this lack of support for a resident’s group advancing what should be the council’s agenda is troubling. This, along with Great Ancoats Street, suggests a council not taking a “Streets for All” approach seriously, wand lacks the will to prioritise alternatives to driving in the city centre.

Is a congestion charge being introduced?

In the past year, the main focus has been developing a “Clean Air Zone”, covering all of Greater Manchester. The scheme would charge the most polluting buses, taxis, heavy and lights goods vehicles entering the zone.

This Clean Air Zone isn’t a congestion charge because it doesn’t charge polluting private vehicles. However, congestion charges are shown to be highly effective.

When Stockholm introduced its congestion charge 11 years ago, it was dubbed “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.” The charge began with just 25 per cent public approval – but when congestion dropped by 20 per cent, public opinion changed rapidly. After a seven month trial period, a referendum made the scheme permanent, and public approval now stands near 70 per cent. Revenue from the scheme has funded new metro lines and active travel improvements.

TfGM argue that charging private cars will hurt the poorest in society. However, ONS data show that while nearly all households in the richest 10 per cent by income own a car, just a third of those in the lowest 10 per cent own one. And nearly all homeowners have at least one car, compared to less than half of households in social housing.

In reality, households on lower incomes are far more likely to rely on public transport, and are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality.

The elephant in the room: the airport

Burnham has pledged to make Greater Manchester carbon neutral by 2038.

It’s difficult to imagine how this is possible, considering that Manchester Airport – 65 per cent owned by Manchester City Council – is expanding. Over the next 20 years, it plans to double passenger numbers.

Globally, aviation emissions are growing so quickly that by 2020 they’re projected to be 70 per cent higher than in 2005 and are currently 26 per cent higher than in 2013. If it were a country, global aviation emissions would be within the top 10 emitters. Here in Manchester, Pete Abel of Manchester Friends of the Earth says the current airport expansion plans would blow “our carbon budget twice over”.

A lack of follow-through

The stakes are high, the consequences dire. Strong, decisive action is required to rid Manchester of its poisonous air.

While Burnham has the vision, he doesn’t have the power. Without buy-in and consistent action from the 10 councils as well as central government, there’s only so much that can be accomplished – and it won’t be enough.

Public transport must become convenient and cheaper than driving. All city streets must enable walking and cycling. Mancunians – as well as city dwellers around the country – must hold elected representatives to account, let them know "business as usual" is no longer acceptable, and demand action to match the rhetoric.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Manchester Confidential

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.