Paul Wheeler: Let’s have a serious new debate about congestion and air quality in London

Paul Wheeler: Let’s have a serious new debate about congestion and air quality in London

London isn’t Amsterdam. It’s a dynamic world city with a population of millions, many of whom rely on an efficient road system to live their lives and earn their living. It’s time for a serious debate about the future of the road network in the capital, even if it leads to tears in the mini-Holland paradise of Walthamstow. We owe it to the Romans.

We should first acknowledge the sheer tenacity of the London Cycling Campaign in capturing the commanding heights of Transport for London and the London Labour Party. They have successfully recruited the transport debate into part of the culture wars (“two wheels good, four wheels bad”) and ensured that discussion of traffic reduction and air quality centres entirely on the use of private cars. But thankfully times are changing.

Within Labour, which I’ve been a member of for many years, there are welcome signs that the grip of the men in lycra is loosening. Peter Mason, the new leader of Ealing, and Sarah Merrill, the lead member for transport in Greenwich, are more willing to listen to all views in the traffic debate. Leonie Cooper, London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth and leader of Wandsworth Council Labour group, has acknowledged the problems caused by the introduction without prior consultation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Wandsworth.

If the debate is moving on, what should we be talking about? Here’s my five-point plan to transform the debate on traffic in London over the next five years.

One. We need to switch the focus away from arranging a quiet life for those who live in residential side roads and towards reducing congestion on TfL’s network of Red Routes. These account for less than five per cent of road space but they carry over 30 per cent of London’s road traffic. Many of them are residential streets too, and often those where poorer Londoners live.

Just like the NHS, these roads are currently operating at full or above capacity. Also just like the NHS, increases in traffic levels can cause chaos and ultimately gridlock, with huge implications for the reliability of London’s bus services. Pro-LTN campaigners insist those schemes have few if any ill-effects on the reliability of emergency services, but some local experience suggests otherwise. Greenwich Council has initiated an immediate review of the West Greenwich LTN based on emerging evidence of delays in response times.

If TfL has a plan to reduce congestion in the next five years they are keeping it a secret. It might help if they re-convened the Roads Task Force, which has not met since 2016, with a specific Red Routes remit. London’s local authorities too have responsibilities. Too often, they play pass the parcel with TfL where Red Route residents are concerned and adopt a similarly laissez-faire attitude to the residents of main roads they control.

One of the worst impacts of the craze for LTNs during the Covid pandemic was how, unintentionally or by design, a significant number of them seemed to divert traffic from the roads of the rich to those of the less affluent. You don’t have to be a latter-day Charles Booth to notice the similar social profiles of people who live within the Dulwich Village, Lee Green and West Greenwich LTNs.

Two. A related reason for concentrating on Red Routes is that, despite some welcome improvements, we still have a serious problem with air quality on these roads. A recent report by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants as part of the Breathe London Pilot Project found that, on average, Red Routes have 57 per cent more NO2 and 35 per cent more PM25 pollutants than the average London road.

A report by Centric Lab and the Environmental Defense Fund Europe notes that, “Recent schemes to address rising traffic levels have often been targeted on already less congested roads. This cannot be the only intervention, as it doesn’t solve the air pollution equitability problem and in some circumstances has put more of a health burden on residents living on Red Routes.”

Hundreds of thousands of Londoners live on these Red Routes, millions use them daily and a third of primary schools are located close to them. The need to improve the situation is made more urgent by the forthcoming Environment Bill being likely to lead to legally enforceable air quality limits for roads such as the South Circular. Why and how to respond to such legal limits should be occupying all the waking hours of TfL’s management.

Three. We need to reduce our dependency on petrol and diesel fuel. TfL should be congratulated for its progress with cleaning up its fleet so far, including starting to introduce hydrogen buses. But London also needs the rapid adoption of electric cars and work vans. Currently, the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is woeful. We should put pressure on the government to help transform this situation.

The coming extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone will certainly help improve air quality, though sadly it will exclude those who live beyond the North and South Circular boundaries. London’s boroughs – especially those that will be cut in half by the extension – and Sadiq Khan should campaign to extend the ULEZ to the edge of Greater London or even the M25, with appropriate scrappage schemes to support those who need to upgrade their vehicles.

Four. We need to urgently restore confidence in public transport. The government’s mean-spirited TfL budget reductions and micro-management have lowered confidence in it as much as the pandemic. We need a world-beating public transport system – think Hong Kong or Singapore – that reassures in terms of frequency, safety and cost.

At the same time, if we want to reduce the number of privately-owned cars and the amount of driving, we need to recognise that most people will still need to use a car some of the time. As such, we should be much more explicit about recognising the contribution of car clubs and private hire to the public transport network. The radical plans by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to exclude car traffic from the centre of Paris by 2022 specifically exempt taxis. This may indicate that it is time for a grown-up talk between TfL and representatives of London’s black cab trade in particular.

Five. Freight is the literal elephant in the room for any debate about traffic and one on which the London Cycling Campaign is remarkably silent. For the hundreds of thousands who live on the main residential roads, heavy freight in particular is the bane of our lives in terms of air and noise pollution and creates big road safety problems too. It is without doubt one of those issues in the “hard to solve” box. But rapid changes in IT and logistics mean we could soon ask why, for example, the major supermarket chains and companies like Amazon need to have their own road distribution systems.

Conclusions. The effects of Covid are almost certain to change the lives of Londoners fundamentally, so let’s have a fuller discussion about congestion and air quality. More road-pricing is surely coming. Of course, it will be unpopular with some, but so was the concept of paying to park outside your house. Rapid advances in satellite technology (thank you Elon Musk and Richard Branson) mean real-time monitoring of road use is not far away. More sophisticated road pricing will provide a new opportunity to change which London roads drivers travel on and when. Let’s start talking about things like that instead how best to improve the lot of the prosperous of Dulwich Village 

Paul Wheeler is still a long standing member of the Labour Party and the founder member (in fact the only member) of London Cyclists With a Conscience (#therealLCC). Follow Paul on Twitter

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Categories: Comment


  1. Andrew Curry says:

    For some reason OnLondon seems captured by contributors who seem unaware of what actual research and evidence tells us about what happens when roads are limited or restricted to vehicles. There is, in short, significant evaporation of the number of vehicles. This is because the user equation between time and convenience changes.

    And if you’re going to deal with air pollution from vehicles, you need to refuce the number of vehicles using the roads. Yes, reducing the number of diesel and petrol vehicles helps, but half of the air pollution from transport comes from tyres and brakes, and large vehicles (e.g. SUVs as well as freight vehicles) emit disproportionately more because they are heavier. The relationship isn’t linear.

    Fewer vehicles also means that vulnerable road users feels less vulnerable, and non-drivers are more likely to leave their homes and car-owners are more likely to use other means of transport. I’m not quite sure why Paul Wheeler finds it necessary to abuse the good work done by London Cycling Campaign in this area. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if they hadn’t spent the last 20 years lobbying City Hall.

    1. Andrew there’s a difference between research and wishful thinking. If you have any authoritative research that validates the evaporation theory across London please share.

      As for the Labour Cycling Campaign you’re right they were good when they started twenty years ago. Sadly since then they have bloated on their own self righteousness. They are latter day free masons with secretive meetings and ‘friends of friends groups’ within London Labour and local councils. The contrast with the exclusion of disability groups from the consultation process is scandalous..

      Time to open up the debate!

  2. 1. Pollution is a big issue but the currently proposed ULEZ is dreadfully socially divisive, on many levels. My personal contention is that fact that I, who use my car twice a week for some 15-20 minutes at a time, will pay £15 per day, just as would a person that drives for 10 hours per day, and who produces 20 times more CO2. This is just plain stupid, and shows that the issue is not just pollution but skinning the residents. Then, that £15 per day will be peanuts for those that drive massive cars. And the well off can afford Teslas etc
    2. Another issue is vehicular noise. While our buses are now pretty much silent, we have lots of idiots on bikes and in cars who not clearly inadequately endowed by nature have to impose their ‘masculinity’ on us all by driving and riding madly noisy vehicles and revving them up. Why is there no law on this ?
    2. Urban public transport should be free to use for Londoners ( see Luxemburg, Tallinn etc ). Now is the perfect time for trying this out as TFL’s income from tickets is very low and travel is already subsidised. I am drafting my PhD proposal on the impact that free public transport might have on urbanisation and living in cities.
    ( I live in Notting Hill, cycle daily, drive, walk, use buses and ride a 300cc scooter )

  3. Roger Blake says:

    You saved the best for last. Management of demand for roadspace has to be by cost, not queuing. (Also no backsliding from marginal gains already secured ie 24/7 red route bus lanes, 7-day central London Congestion Charge and until 23.00.)

    1. Actually most of what you list isnt road pricing and gives a free pass to freight once they have paid the congestion charge. Think we need to be a bit smarter than that to be honest.

  4. Peter Tucker says:

    Absolutely agree! The introduction of Congestion charge zones, red routes and cycle super highways has been disastrous for both traffic and residents living on those routes; some have had to suffer the impact of all three impositions. In some places, e.g. Harleyford road SE11, a three lane red route was reduced to a 2 lane red route with the introduction of a cycle lane that is only really used during peak hours. All the while, there is a network of side streets which previously would have taken over spil and certainly were much safer for cyclists. All of this has led to the slow down and further congestion of traffic has lead to a greater level of emissions and by default, pollution. Who couldn’t have predicted this would be the outcome, TFL, it seems.

  5. Andrew Curry says:

    @Paul, Traffic evaporation is one of the best tested theories out there, even if it seems counter intuitive. Specifically in terms of London, Rachel Aldred found that it held for the Walthamstow LTNs.

    As for the rest, given how dominant the traffic lobby continues to be, and how much we all need road transport volumes to be reduced, it is more useful to look for allies rather than picking fights in this unhelpfully aggressive way.

    1. Hi Andrew as you rightly say traffic evaporation is a theory.

      I think I would prefer to build a coalition of ordinary Londoners rather than rely on one noisy campaign group.

  6. A person says:

    The points in this article are sensible without needing to be drenched in anti-“cyclist lobby” culture war nonsense.

    Reducing traffic on main roads means bringing in some form of road charging. Not sure why the writer didn’t mention this when he has done in previous pieces. Perhaps it’s because road charging and LTNs ultimately go hand in hand. The charge that LTNs displace traffic onto main roads and thus affect more poorer residents can no longer be made if road charging reduces traffic on main roads anyway.

    Blocking access for many vehicles but allowing access to taxis (maybe limited to electric taxis) is ultimately the way forward. But it;s not like the LTDA is some sort of passive victim here. It opposes any and all measures to improve cycling and cannot point to a single initiative that it has supported.

    Public transport, car clubs, freight – none of this has anything to do with the so-called cycle lobby.

    Ultimately some sensible points undermined by what appears to be a personal vendetta that is irrelevant to the subject matter.

    1. I am not anti-cyclist (I am one myself) but do regret how the LCC have hijacked the debate in London Labour circles. Compared to how the voice of the disabled has been silenced it’s a disgrace. If the LCC really represented all cyclists it would be saying a lot more about reducing freight.

      I did mention road pricing in this article as the ultimate solution as I have before. In the interim we need to recognise that the current crop of COVID LTNs have failed because of poor consultation and been the reserve of rich residential areas.

      1. A person says:

        I’m also not sure about the political point you;re making here. LTNs are Tory government policy. Neither the LCC nor the Labour party are in government. A large amount of local government pushback against LTNs and indeed any cycling measure installed over the course of the pandemic has been in Tory-run councils, but they are rebelling against their own party.

      2. As you say my puzzle is why London Labour Councils were so keen to implement a Tory Government inspired policy🤔🤔. Perhaps some of them could explain particularly as the LTNs adopted seemed to discriminate against some of their poorest residents.

        When I have asked LCC advocates about this they say LTNs are a price worth paying for progress. As a old Labourite I would just ask who is making the progress and who is paying the price🤔

  7. Bill says:

    Sorry, but all these calls for road pricing. The usual Tory solution. Let’s discriminate against the less well off by using affordability as a weapon.

    The folks in the LTNs with their gas guzzling 4x4s can afford to drive their kids to school (look at the roads on a school day) but the retail workers and the like can get up earlier to use expensive public transport.

    Why not look at the size and engine capacity of cars for example? Do people really need Porsche Cayennes in the middle of London?

    And does anyone know about the fate of LTNs that were seemingly bought in on the sly to keep social distancing because of Covid (!!)?

  8. Anthony Sleep says:

    We are effectively getting road pricing anyway. It has occurred to many that LTN’s are a necessary precursor to charging for main road use, to close off avoidance by using back streets.

    Personally I expect ULEZ-EX to concentrate minds somewhat. The outer area beyond the N&S Circular boundaries, up to the M25, contains 4.9m people, in general poorer than inner residents. It is the source of most road travel into inner London. Public transport is sketchy, and distances are too great for anyone except athletes to walk or cycle, all weathers, unsocial hours. Many have to transport equipment. TfL themselves say 20% can neither afford compliant vehicles nor the daily fee. What happens to all those just-about-surviving inner London businesses when their low-waged staff and zero-hours contractors can no longer get to work? London already has the highest unemployment rate of any UK region, at 6.8%, at the same time as UK has the highest number of vacancies for 20 years. It’s all very reminiscent of the 1970’s decade-long punch-up over who would lose out as a result of the end of empire and industry.

    This time around it’s Brexit+Covid recession. London is hollowing out, to leave enclaves of wealth trying to maintain their pleasant privilege at the cost of reduced freedom of movement and opportunity for the rest of us.

    It won’t work. UK in the 1970’s was only rescued from chaos by North Sea Oil and a financial industry that devised profitable globalisation. The oil has run out, and the financiers ran out of rope in 2008. Most also need the EU more than they need UK. Without any basis for recovery, there won’t be one, and adding friction through ANPR-administered taxes will only accelerate decline and exodus.

    1. Blimey Anthony you are a cheerful soul aren’t you…. As they say I was there in the 70s and they weren’t quite as bleak as you are painting.

      Back to the present and what you are suggesting with regards to LTNs and congestion charging/tolls with ULEZ isn’t road pricing. With road pricing we can give exemptions to blue badge holders and even a free travel limit for
      Ordinary Londoners. More significantly we can charge large commercial organisations like Tesco and Amazon for the miles they actually travel and use the receipts to fund public transport. Now that’s a virtuous circle!

  9. Petrol and diesel road vehicles : so 20th century ! We need all vehicles electric now . Large vehicles need electric engines developed for all of them . If planes cannot have electric engines , confine them to only flying over seas or other large expanses of water and no higher than absolutely necessary.

  10. Andrew Curry says:

    @Andrew Inglis: I’ve just been involved in writing a report for the Department for Transport on exactly this subject. See this Linked In post.

    TL:DR: Cars need to be electric, and we need fewer of them (and more lightweight vehicles/active travel); trucks probably need to be hydrogen; rail needs to be as electrified as fully as possible; and planes are hoping against hope that synthetic fuels technology will work at scale and cost so they can carry on doing just what they are doing right now.

  11. Michael says:

    Putting the divisive cycling debate to one side, I think much of what Paul proposes is pretty sound and really does need to be seriously discussed if London is to remain livable. One point he makes about LTNs benefitting affluent areas reminded me of something in the Guardian from March

    It would be great to get more research on positive changes in journey choices – what provokes them and what the obstacles are – from all demographics

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