16 February 2017

London's Air Pollution - Tactical Fixes?

As air pollution in cities continues to make headlines and health impacts become clearer, national governments and cities are under pressure to introduce new regulations.  There are of course a large range of options in the regulator's tool-box, from congestion charging (e.g. London's upcoming T-Charge), and tailpipe emission regulations, through to incentives to promote vehicle sharing or temporarily banning certain vehicle registrations.  Specific 'anti-diesel' measures are also emerging (e.g. parking surcharge in Westminster Council, UK), as a broader appreciation of impacts from carbon, NOx and particulate emissions is understood.  And technological innovations will continue to provide solutions, from powertrain advances, to 'Mobility as a Service' propositions and V2I solutions.  

UK's capital, London, is far from immune from air pollution, in fact it's breaching all sorts of limits.  It's also where I work, with part of my regular commute being between Waterloo, over towards the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul's Cathedral, London
There are plenty of ways to get between these two parts of London - all of them (except taxi) being relatively sustainable - Santander Cycle Hire, the Electric-powered 521 bus, the underground tube, or my choice - walking.

A BYD Electric Bus on the 521 route in London, 15th Feb 2017

London's cycle hire scheme, 16th Feb 2017

However, none of these sustainable forms of transport mean the user is immune to air pollution (in fact, perhaps surprisingly, it's particular bad on the underground).  Whilst Sadiq Khan (The Mayor of London) continues his focus on shaping strategic interventions, below I've outlined three relatively simple tactical things, which might improve things in London just a little...

Here are the three simple steps I'd consider:

1. Update the Routemaster timetables to avoid peak times

Tourists and Londoners alike love our classic Routemaster buses, so it was great to see them reinstated on 'Heritage routes' in 2005.  Since July 2014, they only serve Route 15 (between Trafalgar Square and Blackwall).

A Routemaster Bus on Route 15, London, 15th Feb 2017
Although they've been refurbished since being originally built, they certainly aren't using cutting-edge powertrain technology - and are often stuck in congestion, with engines running.  On the assumption that these buses are some of the least emissions-friendly running in London, should timetables be updated, so they only run when there is less likelihood of traffic jams?  Or should they be taken off the roads altogether?  Longer-term, hopefully a Euro VI compliant Cummins engine could mean their emissions can be reduced dramatically.

2. Discourage drivers leaving engines idling at traffic lights

In England, leaving an engine idling whilst parked is actually illegal, but doesn't apply when waiting at traffic lights or in a traffic jam.  However, for a large number of London's roads during rush hour, cars are only inching forwards over a period of minutes, with engines left on.  Start-stop technology means this is not a problem for some new cars, but the vast majority of cars, vans and lorries on London's roads today don't yet benefit from this.

Take Blackfriar's Bridge Northbound in the morning as an example.  Whilst cyclists, buses and walkers continue unhindered, the rest of the traffic can be stuck in traffic for an extended period.

A queue of traffic Northbound over Blackfriar's Bridge, London, February 2017

A cost-effective 'nudge' might be to erect signs on the lamposts (helpfully next to the driver's windows in the centre of the bridge) asking drivers to switch off whilst queuing.  How else could behavioural change be used to make switching engines off the 'social norm'?

3. Adapt taxi ranks to be on downward slopes

Whilst we wait for taxis to have hybrid powertrains, taxi ranks are currently full of diesel-powered taxis, nudging forwards every few moments, as a new passenger at the front of the queue heads-off (often to pay for the privilege of being stuck in traffic around the corner).  It would take a bit of re-positioning, or some adaptations, but wouldn't a downward sloping taxi rank mean the engines could be left off, allowing drivers to move forwards without the engine being on?

The front of the (very long) taxi rank at Waterloo Station, London, 15th Feb 2017

All images © Richard Waters