British Politics Cities Environment

To beat pollution, get the cars out of London

London is hideously polluted. To end this growing crisis, and improve the city's quality of life, we need to get the cars out, and the cyclists and pedestrians in.

LONDONERS take just 2% of their journeys by bike. In recent years, London mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to create a sort of bicycle superhighway lancing through the capital, providing a safe way for citizens to cycle around the city.

It’s desperately needed: London is hideously polluted, and Khan has so far done little to solve this growing public health crisis. Getting people out of their cars and on to their bikes is a fantastic way to lower the amount of traffic pollution, clean up the air, and make people happier and healthier at the same time. But mass uptake of cycling only works if the infrastructure is there, and as it stands it’s sorely lacking. Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where 29% and 32% of journeys are taken by bicycle respectively, show us it’s possible.

Cycling infrastructure comes hand-in-hand with pedestrianisation. With space freed up by the elimination of traffic, cycle lanes can take the place of roads previously used up entirely by cars. It’s common for local government to boast about how many miles of cycle lanes they’ve created, but often this amounts to little more than a few lines painted on the road, rather than purpose-built space set apart for people on their bikes. This might assuage the fears of pedestrians and other road-users too, who snobbishly dismiss cyclists or claim them to be dangerous – I don’t know about them, but I’d much rather see a street filled with cyclists than cars.

I used to work in Soho, just off Oxford Street. My enduring memory of the busiest shopping street in Europe was the oppressiveness of the air and the dense crowds that filled the pedestrian paths throughout the year, but particularly at Christmas. I was delighted, then, when Sadiq Khan announced that part of Oxford Street would be pedestrianised within the next few years, with the rest of the artery to follow. What better way to improve the liveability of the area and thin the enormous crowds than to bar cars from the street entirely?

Pedestrianisation is, I think, something that can be applied to any town or city in Britain. One of the reasons we lack a proper, European-style café culture is because we surrender too much of our urban space to cars – we consequently have very few car free squares and streets over which cafés, bars and restaurants can spread.

What better way to improve the liveability of the area and thin the enormous crowds than to bar cars from the street entirely?

I was thinking about this very problem while sipping a coffee at a café-restaurant in my hometown, sitting at a table squeezed onto the path outside the establishment, hemmed in by the road. Although none of them are especially busy streets, taking the traffic out of the the High Street, the Market Place and its adjoining roads would improve the quality of life in a small but immediately tangible way.

It has precedence, particularly in continental Europe. The Grand Place/Grote Markt – the large public square in the centre of Brussels and the city’s most popular tourist attraction – is partly such a nice place to sit with a cherry beer and some moules frites because it has been entirely pedestrianised – go back a few decades, and you’d find a car park.

I will concede that sometimes cars are necessary. But some long journeys can easily be replaced by better public transport, especially more reliable and frequent bus services. Another idea – this is a favourite among the Letterhole family – is trams. Many European cities, including Dublin, Porto, Prague, Vienna and Bordeaux, as well as Nottingham and Croydon, have tram networks that ferry people around the city, usually parallel with roads. My ideal solution for a city like London would be to replace as much car traffic as possible with a tram network rumbling round the centre, with reliable bus lanes fanning out towards the suburbs.

Sadiq Khan talks a lot about the pollution crisis, but his relative inaction has made it clear that, in London, we have a mayor who is totally unwilling to make any forward-thinking decision that will upset people in the present. This was the case with the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street: a backlash from Westminster Council, whose decision it ultimately was, put a stop to the plans. Khan’s weakness, and his inability to control the narrative, means Oxford Street remains a polluted, unpleasant mess. Surely Europe’s busiest shopping street deserves better.

Middle-class urbanist fantasy magazine Monocle releases a well-regarded ‘Quality of Life Index’ every year, listing the top 25 most livable cities in the world. In each edition, London is conspicuous by its absence. The first step to getting the capital – and any British city – on that list is to make it a more comfortable, breathable, amenable place to live, and we can start that process by moving the cars out, and the pedestrians and cyclists in.

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