What’s really killing Londoners

Air pollution is the world’s biggest killer. Nine in ten people now live in places where levels exceed recommended limits, according to the United Nations. London is no exception, with parts of the city regularly recording levels that are illegal and dangerously high. Each year nearly 10,000 Londoners die prematurely because of it.

But what if ten thousand Londoners died every year as a result of road traffic accidents, gun crime or terrorist attacks? It would be unthinkable; front page of the Standard. And yet air pollution doesn’t have the same effect. You’re unlikely to ever think twice about catching the tube from Kennington to Camden, even though the air you breath in that journey is equivalent to smoking a cigarette. And you probably won’t ponder the traffic you sit in while dropping off the little one on a Monday morning, even though a quarter of London’s primary schools are in areas that breech legal limits for pollutants. The trouble with air pollution, of course, is that it’s a hidden killer – we can’t see it, and its effects are largely invisible. But is the issue also that we don’t want to see it?

The majority of Londoners recognise air pollution as a growing problem, yet many accept it or are reluctant to do anything about it. Changing circumstances, however, mean that neither way of thinking is likely to be sustainable for any longer: we will have to act. In a city whose population will rise to 10 million in the next decade, the effects of air pollution will only become more pronounced. There will be more people, more cars and more pressure on the transport network. A collective and concerted effort will be required if we are to address the multitude of challenges posed. It’s in every Londoner’s interest to do so – pollution doesn’t respect boundaries or post codes. The cost to London’s economy is dear: £3.7 billion by some estimates; and the combined impact on health, society and the environment is vast.

There are some encouraging signs from the new Mayor Sadiq Khan, however, in the form of a series of policy proposals: an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – which sets out new emissions standards for vehicles driving in central London – will be rolled out to cover the existing Congestion Charge Zone from 2020 (though it’s likely this may be brought forward a year early and extended up to the North/South circular following the results of a recent public consultation); an Emissions Surcharge, which will see the oldest, most polluting vehicles charged for driving at peak times; a potential diesel scrappage scheme; a cleaner buses programme with an emphasis on hybrid fleets and green technology; and the construction of new cycle superhighways to encourage more people to take up cycling. The outlook, in the short-term at least, is positive.

But it will not be enough to rely on government initiatives alone. Everyday Londoners must grasp the nettle with haste: using cars less, catching the bus more often, and walking or cycling to work when we can. It’s undeniable that there is a long way to go, and if national trends are anything to go by, the picture looks bleak: results from a recent survey revealed 97% of British workers were not prepared to switch from their car to a bus in order to get to work. More alarming still, 90% said they wouldn’t do so even if the bus were free. Statistics like this don’t fill you with confidence.

But new initiatives are paving the way and will help to transform the public’s perception of air pollution. Take the London Air Quality Network, for example, which monitors pollution levels in London on a scale not seen before: heat maps highlight the worst polluted areas to give air pollution a visual dimension. Apps like CleanSpace allow users to measure the levels of pollution they encounter on journeys, through the use of a small handheld device. Soon, air quality alerts will be made available at bus stops and tube stations, giving people live information on local pollution levels. All of these measures will help to make air pollution feel more tangible, personal, and real – and something people can relate to and talk about, just like pollen and hay fever.

London is suffocating, so let’s give it a breath of fresh air.

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