Gasping for Air

The Times leader, March 13 2014

The capital is playing catch-up in the race to curb traffic pollution

London’s effort to persuade drivers to switch to electric cars with an £8 million network of charging stations has been a miserable failure. Almost no one uses them. Even so, Vincent Bolloré, a French billionaire, wants to invest £100 million in expanding the system and setting up a fleet of 3,000 electric rental cars to run on it.

Good luck to him. It is Mr Bolloré’s money and if one result of his investment is that more of those who already drive in London do so in zero-polluting vehicles it will help to improve the city’s air quality. There is, however, a more effective way of tackling this extremely urgent problem, both in the capital and the rest of the country. This is to speed up the electrification of two of the biggest polluters in Britain’s cities — taxis and buses.

Particulate pollutants, better known as fumes, cause cancer and respiratory illness on a scale that dwarfs the public health impact of traffic accidents and disproportionately affects the very young. A World Health Organisation study last year blamed air pollution for 29,000 premature deaths in Britain each year. It singled out London as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Adding insult to injury, the European Commission threatened the capital last month with fines of up to £300 million for persistently failing to tackle its dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant blamed mainly on road traffic and linked to still births and poor cognitive development.

Boris Johnson’s efforts to cut London’s air pollution are in the right direction, but so far they are trifling compared with what is needed and what is being done elsewhere.

The technology exists to replace heavy duty, heavily polluting diesel engines with all-electric and hybrid propulsion systems, and other countries are seizing it. Over the past five years Britain’s Green Bus Fund has dispersed £88 million to help pay for 1,250 hybrid and battery-powered buses nationwide. Last week an order for 1,200 all-electric buses was placed by a single Chinese city.

The scale of the response in China is partly a result of its acute emergency, fuelled by a reliance on low-quality coal for power generation that is forcing millions to wear masks outdoors and keep children indoors. However, China’s rush to electric buses reflects an awareness of what can be achieved by focusing on transport fleets whose movements are predictable.

Fleet managers know how far and over which routes their vehicles need to travel each day, and where they will be every morning and evening. This vastly improves the feasibility of relying on batteries and hybrids. China’s own leading maker of electric buses, backed heavily by the American investor Warren Buffett, produces a single-decker vehicle sold worldwide with a 150-mile range between charges.

Transport for London maintains that this is not enough for most routes in the capital. It is relying instead on new hybrid Routemasters to make a reality of a central “ultra-low emission zone” by 2020. New London taxis are also required to be capable of running only on batteries by 2018, and five manufacturers are bidding for licences. The deadlines are unambitious and other cities and towns, including Coventry, Milton Keynes and Nottingham, are innovating faster with new charging methods. London claims to be leading the way to cleaner air. It is actually playing catch-up, and must speed up.

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