London mulls car-free days to curb air pollution

Paris, Brussels, Madrid ... is London next?

Polluted air claims the lives of an estimated 9,000 Londoners each and every year.

That troubling figure, however, may soon drop as Mayor Sadiq Khan signals that he's prepared to take further action in combating what he has called a "shameful" ongoing public health crisis in the smog-shrouded British capital city.

As reported by the Independent, Khan, who has tackled a multitude of environmental issues during his relatively short tenure including a crackdown on single-use bottled water consumption, is mulling over instituting designated "car-free" days in different areas of the city. Officials at City Hall are now reportedly gearing up to talk logistics: which particular streets in which particular boroughs would see cars banished on which particular days?

Depending on how these discussions pan out, some London streets could experience daylong car bans later this year, while "more ambitious plans" are pondered for 2019.

"Tackling toxic emissions from the most polluting vehicles is a core part of the hard-hitting measures the mayor has introduced to help clean up London's air, from delivering the toxicity charge (T-Charge) in central London, to the early introduction of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, and transforming the bus fleet," a spokesperson for Khan's office tells the Independent. "The mayor is determined to do everything in his power to protect the health of Londoners and prioritise walking, cycling and public transport and reduce Londoners' dependency on polluting cars."

Car exhaust London Just one month into 2018, London hit its annual air pollution limits. Roughly 40,000 people in the U.K. die from the effects of polluted air annually, many of them in London. (Photo: Daniel Lea-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The spokesperson goes on to note that the mayor has already given his blessing to over 100 events held throughout the city that have required road closures or traffic restrictions.

Although not expressly closed as a method of curbing deadly air pollution caused by vehicle emissions, the recent London Marathon is a fine example of how a single car-free day can lead to dramatically decreased pollution levels. On Sunday, March 28 — the day of the marathon — pollution levels in the city plunged 89 percent compared to the previous two Sundays when various major arteries were not closed to traffic. Obviously, the car-free days envisioned by City Hall will be smaller and more localized than the London Marathon. But if the daylong car bans in question were smartly and strategically staggered throughout the city, they could add up to a major decrease in health-compromising air pollution.

Car-free Oxford Street, London Bustling Oxford Street went car-free once a year during the holiday season from 2005 to 2012. Now, the Westminster City Council is calling a scheme to permanently pedestrianize it as 'unacceptable.' (Photo: Traffic Free Oxford Street)

Car-free dreams for Oxford Street hit a snag

One major car-banishing campaign promise of Khan revolves around the permanent pedestrianization of Oxford Street, London's busiest shopping thoroughfare and one of the most toxic air-plagued streets not just in London but the entire world. This would mean no taxis, no buses and no private vehicles, which are normally only permitted on Oxford Street between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. No forms of ground transport at all, at anytime. From 2005 to 2012, Oxford Street was subject to once-a-year car-free day on the Saturday before Christmas. Although massively popular with shoppers and retailers, the so-called VIP (Very Important Pedestrian) Day didn't last.

Now, the ambitious Oxford Street pedestrianization scheme, which would be carried out in three phases and initially enjoyed broad support from various groups, is now facing formidable opposition from the Westminster City Council, which owns the road, according to the Independent. The council worries that giving vehicular traffic the boot from Oxford Street will lead to congestion — and elevated air pollution — on adjacent roads and, in the end, make traffic patterns even more snarled.

Bicycle advocacy groups are also rallying against the plan given that the newly minted pedestrian zone, commendable in so many other ways, makes minimal accommodations for cyclists. Instead of transforming a portion of a car-less Oxford Street into a much-needed bike transport artery, cyclists would be required to dismount their bikes and walk or veer off course and use an alternate route — an alternate route that might be extra-congested with cars due to the street closure.

"We continue to work closely with Westminster Council to look at all the latest consultation responses in detail, and ensure everyone's views are taken on board before a final proposed scheme is presented," a spokesperson for the mayor's office says of the setbacks.

A car-free Champs Elysees in Paris A gloriously car-free scene on the Champs Elysees in October 2017. Even when air quality is acceptable, Paris closes down some of its more congested (and tourist-friendly) streets to vehicular traffic once per month. (Photo: Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images)

The French connection

Oxford Street aside, Kahn's vision for different car-free days that aren't necessarily prompted by major events but simply by the need for Londoners to breath cleaner air, isn't entirely unique.

By now, car-free days, some reoccurring, are commonplace in Paris, particularly when pollution levels reach stifling levels.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo enacted Paris' first car-free day in 2015 in response to deteriorating air quality levels across the French capital. The following year, Hidalgo enacted and announced several bans and limitations on automobile traffic, some short-lived and some permanent including the closure of a traffic-ridden expressway running alongside the Right Bank of the River Seine to make way for a pedestrian promenade. In 2017, Paris hosted a citywide car-free day in which all voitures (save for emergency vehicles, taxis and tourist buses) got the boot from city streets. What's more, on the first Sunday of every month, a number of high-traffic — and super tourist-y — streets like Avenue des Champs-Élysées are closed to vehicular traffic. (In addition to restricting traffic and establishing car-free days, Hidalgo is also pushing to permanently make all modes of public transportation in Paris free as a means of severely slashing air pollution caused by automobiles.)

In addition to Paris, other cities are taking the lead when it comes to banning traffic from pollution-chocked streets. Some make London's idea for separate car-free days spread across the city look rather, well, tame.

In 2015, the Norwegian capital of Oslo announced a ban on cars (with some exceptions) from its city center by 2019 as part of a bid to drastically slash emissions. By 2030, city leaders hope to reduce emissions throughout all of Oslo by 30 percent. As I've previously noted, the most exceptional thing about Oslo's kibosh on cars is the speed at which the phase-out is occurring. Four years is aggressive and quick, especially for a Scandinavian nation that operates at a slower, simpler and more measured pace and where rapt television viewers tune in to watch salmon spawn for 18 hours straight.

Madrid is another city with an aggressive car-banning scheme in place as city planners work to convert an astonishing 500 acres of the city center into a car-free zone where pedestrians rule the streets. And from there, the list — Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Oxford — goes on.

Back in London, there's hope that Khan's push for on-and-off car-free days in different boroughs will stick and, ideally, expand.

One activist, Marco Picardi, has already picked a date (Sept. 22) for a Paris-style citywide car ban and is petitioning the mayor to make it a reality. "Everyday Londoners like me are breathing in toxic fumes that can seriously damage our health," writes Picardi. "This city is home for me and my family, and because of that I'm determined to do something about it."

"Car-free days are a great way to show the potential to cut traffic across London," Bridget Fox of the Campaign for Better Transport tells the Guardian. "We hope every community in the capital will be inspired to take part."

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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