Ever more frequently, stories are surfacing about the dangerous levels of air pollution in our cities, in the UK and across the world. Just this week (18 September) it was revealed that children walking to and from school are inhaling particles of toxic black carbon in worrying amounts – mainly from diesel vehicles, once touted by the EU as the eco-friendly option for drivers but now known to release dangerous levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and soot particulates.
Back in July, the tragic death of a nine year old girl was linked to illegal levels of pollution from London’s South Circular Road, while a new study published this week has drawn links between air pollution and a higher risk of dementia.
Along with well-documented human health issues, emissions from vehicles on the UK’s congested roads account for 26 per cent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other source. The Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change has now stated that transport emissions must fall by 44 per cent by 2030 in order for the UK to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets.
Despite this, car sales continue to rise across the world: according to Forbes, 2017 was a ‘record-breaking year’ and 2018 is predicted to continue the trend, with sales rising by 3.6 per cent on the previous year.
However, there is one day a year when people come together to envision something different: since 2000, 22 September has been designated World Car Free Day. For 24 hours, cars will be banned from certain roads in cities across the world in an attempt to raise awareness of the dangers of vehicle emissions and to promote safe and sustainable travel alternatives: walking, bikes and public transport.
This year, London will be involved in the event for the first time, with nearly 50 roads closed in the capital after a petition soared past 10,000 signatures and was backed by Mayor Sadiq Khan. While the day is mainly about raising awareness, the effect of removing so many vehicles from the roads, even for a short time, cannot be ignored – as evidenced by this year’s London Marathon, which led to an 89 per cent reduction in air pollution during the event on a section of the route.
The event’s organisers in London have described it as not only a way to reduce emissions but an opportunity to ‘prototype the future of land use in London; with roads making up 80 per cent of the city's public space, it is time to consider more economically and socially productive uses for this land: public parks, piazzas, local commerce and housing.’
A Car Free Day can also have a significant emotional impact, as Camilla Zerr, Climate Change Campaigns Officer for the Green Party, told Green World. “I had to experience an actual car-free road to really grasp what a fundamental difference it makes to the way we could live,” she explained. “It's about realising how different streets are without cars… It's such a sense of freedom when you're out on the street and you feel safe, there's no noise of cars, and there's no smell of car fumes.
“Most of us grow up thinking that cars are the easiest way to get around. And this is mainly because of the way towns and cities are designed around prioritising travel by car, rather than travel by public transport, walking and cycling. And that means that it's hard for us to imagine what it would be like without cars – and that actually, there are often really good buses or cycle lanes that we could use.”
With many of London’s busy streets cut off for cars, the event will certainly get people’s attention – but does one day a year without cars go far enough? Zerr argues that some streets and areas should be made permanently car free, for instance in front of schools (with access for blue badge holders). This concept was in the works for Oxford Street, with Khan planning to pedestrianise the entire shopping area, but proposals were rejected by Westminster Council amid fears of gridlocks developing elsewhere, a response that reveals how a reliance on cars is entrenched in the city structure and the minds of many residents.
“Government may take credit for supporting [the Car Free Day], whilst not actually taking the concrete steps that need to be taken to make a real long-term, lasting difference,” Zerr has warned.
As part of its Breathing Cities campaign, the Green Party is calling for a new Clean Air Act for the UK, to establish clean air as a human right and hold government to account on improving air quality. Measures suggested by the Greens include a quadrupled investment in walking and cycling infrastructure as well as committing to improvements in public transport networks.
As well as governments, however, car companies must admit culpability for the emissions produced by their products. Manufacturers are getting away with murder (almost literally) by lagging on action to reduce the emissions produced by their vehicles. It was three years ago that Volkswagen was revealed to have installed software in vehicles to cheat emissions tests, and this week the company is at the centre of a new scandal – the EU has launched an investigation into the five major German carmaker, BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche, over suspicions they have been colluding to limit the development of car emissions reduction systems.
If London’s Car Free Day is a success, it could be replicated in other cities across the UK. But yearly events can only do so much, and responsibility cannot rest on ordinary people writing petitions; policy-makers and industry giants must take more decisive action if the UK’s air pollution problems are to be tackled.
More information about the event in London can be found on the London Car Free Day website.