Sadiq Khan’s Central London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will launch on 8 April, covering the current congestion charge zone (but operating round the clock) and imposing an additional daily charge on vehicles that fail to meet a set of emissions standards governing the disgorging of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Mayor Khan intends to expand the ULEZ to the North and South Circular roads from October 2021, prompting London Assembly Conservatives to put forward alternative ideas for improving air quality and claim that the Mayor’s approach is an attack on the worst off.
Plenty more on all that to come. But whatever you think of the Mayor’s approach, it has concentrated minds on cleaning up the capital’s bus fleet, whose contribution to fouling the capital’s atmosphere has been considerable for many years. The 2015 bus strike was reckoned by King’s College to primarily account for a big drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels on Oxford Street on the day it took place. You can’t expect your ULEZ to be credible if your own buses break its rules.
A Central London ULEZ was a Boris Johnson policy, but he had it scheduled for 2020. Mayor Khan has brought it forward, entailing Transport for London ensuring that all buses operating in Central London are up to the Euro VI mark – the highest one set – by the time it opens. TfL says it is on track to achieve this and also to have every one of the roughly 9,300 buses in Greater London as a whole up to at least the same level of cleanliness by some point in 2020. This has been helped by an £86.1 million retrofit programme announced in 2017 to upgrade the exhaust systems of around 5,000 buses already on the streets and all new double deckers added to the fleet now have to be diesel-electric hybrids or cleaner
The Mayor and TfL are pretty proud of this progress and their creation of a network of low emission bus zones stretching across the city, of which there should be a dozen by the end of this year. But could they be doing better still?
Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon, who chairs the London Assembly’s transport committee, has produced a report in which she argues that the Mayor should be more ambitious. Her focus is on electric buses, which produce no nasty emissions at all from their tailpipes (as with all electric vehicles there is a debate about how “green” they are in other ways).
TfL says there are currently 165 zero-emission buses in the fleet, all of them electric except for ten powered by hydrogen fuel cell. From next year all new single-deckers added to the fleet will have to have zero emission engines as will all single decker buses operating in Central London.
But although Pidgeon acknowledges that the Mayor and TfL have been in a “concerted effort” and made a “significant impact” on cleaning up London’s buses, she describes progress towards to electric and other zero-emission vehicles as “going at a snail’s pace”. The Mayor’s transport strategy sets the goal of the entire bus fleet being zero-emission by 2037, but that’s not quick enough for the Lib Dem.
At present, all but a handful of the electric buses in London are single deckers and Pidgeon proposes that more should be phased in more quickly as existing single-deckers age or contracts for their routes come up for renewal. Pointing to the falling costs of electric battery technology, she urges the Mayor and TfL to look at innovations abroad, such as in Eindhoven and Shenzhen. And, she boldly asks, how about looking in to putting electric bendy buses on some of Outer London’s roads?
The Mayor, though, is likely to keep on talking up his cleaner bus endeavours. He made a fast start on implementing his air quality policies after his election and is likely to give short shrift to any suggestion that he is slowing down.