A third Heathrow runway will mean congestion, pollution and inconvenience. There is another way

A plane comes into land at Heathrow. Image: Getty.

There must be some credible reason why the government would back a plan to extend an overcrowded, polluting airport, entrenching the monopoly of a foreign owner, whilst demolishing historic villages in the process. But I’m struggling to find it.

The M25 is already a traffic jam around Heathrow at most times of the day, yet we’re told almost doubling passenger numbers won’t make matters worse. Some 100m vehicles flow between junctions 14 and 15 of the M25 every year – and we don’t think an extra 50 million passengers out of Heathrow will add to that?

Even before this extra traffic is pushed onto the road we can expect chaos as a new tunnel is dug to take the M25 beneath the new runway, because space is at such a premium.

Congestion, though, is the least of our worries. In the Aussie movie The Castle the Kerrigan family find that their makeshift home, teetering on the edge of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, is threatened with demolition to make room for a new runway. “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin,” was the laconic war cry from Darryl Kerrigan, as the Aussie battlers take their case to the High Court.

Sound familiar?

Now, hundreds of Kerrigan families face a similar threat from Heathrow. The new north-west runway will see their homes and neighbourhood ripped apart. The village of Harmondsworth will be practically tarmacked over, and what remains will be so close to the airport perimeter that life will never be the same again. This parish, so old it’s featured in the Doomsday book, will become history. 

Then there’s the danger to the great crested newt. Don’t get me started on the newts.

Worse still, heaping extra traffic on Heathrow – taking it from 78m to 130m passengers a year – increases its monopoly over other London airports, seeing more profits repatriated back to its Spanish owners.

All in all, this “historic moment for the UK” spells disaster. Yet transport secretary Chris Grayling seems intent on extending the chaos on our railways onto our roads and airports.

The two reasons I have heard in favour of the Heathrow decision are both circular arguments. 

First, we’ve seen a lot of economic growth in the Thames Valley because of its proximity to Heathrow. That’s the claim. I suspect proximity to London is more likely the driving force, but if it’s the airport, then extending Gatwick could have a similar impact on growth to the south of London, rather than adding to congestion along the Thames corridor.


The second argument revolves around the importance of being a hub. Almost a third of passengers at Heathrow transit between flights. The more aircraft land. the more onward flights for passengers to choose from. If we don’t add these choices we’ll lose out to other, competing hubs, like Schiphol in Amsterdam. 

But if the traveller’s ultimate destination is outside the UK, who cares if they don’t fly via Heathrow? Transit passengers might buy a coffee and help keep a toilet cleaner in a job, but they’re also adding to air pollution and noise. Let Schiphol deal with them. The Spanish owners will lose a few quid, but that’s hardly our concern.

The same applies for travellers bound for the UK – do we care where they interconnect, so long as they get here and start spending? And their holiday will get off to a better start if they land practically anywhere in the UK other than Heathrow, with the possible exception of Luton.

Yet there is a plan that would solve the pollution, congestion and competition issues in one fell swoop, if only the government would listen. Alistair Lenczner, from engineering consultancy Expedition, suggests a high speed rail link, offering a 15 minute connection between the two airports. In fact, the proposal goes further, with HS4 Air linking to HS2 to the north and looping south of London to join HS1 in Ashford.  

A quarter hour journey time between the two airports would make transiting flights a possibility. Increasing Gatwick to the size of Heathrow today would mean each airport would compete for airlines, lowering landing rates and offering better value for customers. You’d assume there would be a greater variety of operators and destinations overall, increasing the competitiveness against foreign hubs, if we really see that as an important consideration.

Passengers could park at Gatwick or Heathrow, easing congestion on the M25 rather than adding to it. Businesses that want to be near international links can pay a premium to base themselves near Reading, or choose newly developing business parks from Crawley to Brighton – or at any point along the new HS4 Air route. And 2m people in West London wouldn’t suffer an increase air traffic noise. 

The idea of an extra runway at Heathrow has been on the cards for 30 years or more. In that time we’ve seen road traffic and air pollution go from bad to worse. Is piling on the numbers at one of the world’s busiest airports the best we can do?

If Chris Grayling really thinks the Heathrow extension plan is the most elegant solution for our future air travel demands, someone has to tell him he’s dreamin’.

Phil Dobbie is a freelance journalist, business podcaster and commentator. He presents Saturday nights from 10pm to 1am on LoveSport Radio in London.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.