Road closures – an alternative view by Tom Chance
In recent months we have all accepted severe limits to our civil liberties to protect the NHS and save lives. Still, the Coronavirus has caused over 65,000 excess deaths across the UK – a tragedy.
But every year there are up to 64,000 excess deaths from air pollution, and we’ve known about this problem for almost twenty years. But we somehow just tolerate it. We tolerate the damage to our lungs and hearts, the increased risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease, because we don’t want to use our cars a little less. Road traffic is the main cause of pollution, particularly in London.
Transport generally is also responsible for almost one third of our greenhouse gas emissions. While we’ve turned off coal power stations and built lots of wind and solar farms, we’ve barely made any difference to transport emissions. We have known about this problem for 40 years and still we drive more each year. Our climate is already destabilising, and if we don’t do something big and soon we are facing catastrophic climate breakdown.
Yes, electric cars will help. But they still create pollution in tyre wear which is really bad for our health, and creates more than 200,000 tonnes of microplastics every year globally! They also add to the challenges of creating enough zero carbon electricity. And it will be another decade or two before they replace most of the petrol and diesel cars on our roads – another half a million excess deaths? No thanks.
I am fed up of having to walk past queues of idling traffic on Central Hill, around the Triangle, down Anerley Hill and up Church Road, breathing in all that toxic pollution. Now I have a little daughter I don’t want her to grow up with damaged lungs, which is what happens to many children around here. I’m also fed up of being sat on a bus in a traffic jam made up of single-driver cars.
In 2014 I led a citizen science project to measure pollution on our local streets. We found the main roads had pollution levels that were up to twice the legal limit and similar to central London. Even by a bus stop on the much quieter Hamlet Road, people waiting for a bus had to breathe in air that was way over the legal limit.
We have to reduce traffic.
Research by TfL shows that in London around 1.6 million car trips a day could be walked, and another 2.7 million a day could be cycled. That’s excluding ‘heavy’ shopping trips, people with disabilities, etc. If everybody walked or cycled when it was convenient we’d reduce car trips by an incredible 38%. We’d slash pollution and be much healthier to boot.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to make walking and cycling more convenient and pleasant, and driving less convenient.
That’s exactly what our councils are finally doing. The road closures are not going to “trap” anyone on their street. But they will make it a bit less convenient to drive to the park, or an exercise class, or to school – things people I know regularly do.
At the same time, they will make it much nicer to walk or cycle that route. We’ve all seen this during lockdown, how lovely many of our streets have been with so few cars. If we take out the rat runs through residential streets we can keep them that way.
Where this has been done elsewhere in London, the UK, across Europe, it has been highly effective. It also doesn’t cause much of an increase in traffic on main roads because enough people decide to walk or cycle instead, and if done across a wide enough area can even reduce main road traffic as fewer people drive.
Less traffic also means more reliable and quicker buses. At the moment the pandemic means they’re at below capacity. But we’re all making sacrifices at the moment, so stopping to think “could I walk or cycle, or just not make this journey today, given the bus is too busy?” is one way we can all save lives – not just from the Coronavirus but from pollution too.
For some of us, these road closures will initially be a pain, but it’s that little bit of pain we need to kick the habit of unnecessary car trips. For almost half of the households in the area who don’t own a car it will be an instant improvement, a joy even.
If we don’t want to just tolerate 64,000 excess deaths a year, and we don’t want to destabilise our climate, we have to reduce traffic. This is a proven way to do it, and I hope our councils go much further over the next year.