In recent years, our awareness of the impact of carbon emissions has skyrocketed. In response, many cities are trying to reduce the use of cars (especially ICEs) in inner-city areas in favor of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.
But does such an approach really make a difference to air pollution levels? Let’s see:
What’s the problem with cars?
You probably know the stats, but let’s take a quick refresher.
According to joint research from Harvard University and several British universities, more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution.
In fact, the researchers estimate that exposure to particulates from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18% of total global deaths in 2018 — just under one in five.
However, not all emissions come from cars. Industrial production, oil refineries, natural events such as weather, dust storms, wildfires and agricultural activities all contribute to pollution levels.
But 2020 research found that: 41% of global transportation emissions are from ICE (gas) cars. The older the car, the worse the pollution.
But things are not so simple.
EVs are not innocent
It’s not just ICE exhaust that’s to blame. In reality, 55% of road traffic pollution comes from non-exhaust particles from both types of cars. Of this, about 20% comes from brake dust, which, if inhaled, can cause: significant respiratory problems†
So it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure to get cars (and trucks, as much as is practical) all the way out of busy inner-city areas.
What are some initiatives?
Madrid and London have ultra-low-emission zonesremoving most gas-powered vehicles made before 2000 and diesel machines made before 2006 from their centers.
In London, the city charges drivers with high-emission vehicles a $15.40 fee to drive within the zone. Again, while EVs are much better, they still pose a problem in high concentrations.
Another approach is to make driving less attractive by limiting parking. In 2016, Oslo removed parking from much of the city, including the center. The City Environment Agency shows it’s lost 4,775 parking spaceswith most being replaced by cycle paths.
Some cities, such as Paris, ban cars on certain days of the week or only on days with a lot of pollution.
Ok, that all sounds pretty good – what’s the problem?
The problem is displacement. Unless there is the right transport infrastructure, we simply move the problem to another place by moving cars out of cities.
There are a few good examples in the UK.
Living on the Edge of Low Emissions
In 2020, a coroner made British legal history by deciding in an inquest that air pollution was the cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.
In particular, her death in February 2013 was caused by acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and exposure to air pollution.
Prof Stephen Holgate, an immunopharmacology and respiratory physician consultant from the University of Southampton, was part of the case. He attributed Ella’s worsening asthma to the cumulative effect of the toxic air Ella was breathing. Ella lived within 100 feet of the South Circular Road, which triggered her latest acute asthma attack.
This map shows the location of South Circular Road. Just on the edge of the ultra-low emission zone and next to a highway. Let’s face it, when you live so close to a highway, it’s hard to deal with pollution.
It’s also possible that traffic around the outskirts of cities will increase as people look for pay-free routes.
some states, like California, actually mandates that homes near highways must be supplied with indoor infiltration systems. other cities, like Seattleinvestigate construction such as “highway covers” to reduce air and noise pollution.
parking and driving
Another initiative to get cars out of busy cities in the US and UK is ‘park and ride’. It’s a pretty simple idea. Parking garages are located outside the city center and there are regular buses or trains to the center.
At peak times, however, this creates more traffic in the area. Especially when you consider that most people choose to live outside the cities and large cities, because it is less crowded and built-up. Like the perimeter of low-emission zones, the pollution just shifts to this area and the people who live there.
Is the solution to expand car-free zones?
Yes and no. There are actually a lot of different actions required.
In London, for example, the local government identified 12 pollution hotspots that needed immediate attention. They replaced buses in these areas with buses that meet or exceed ULEZ Standards†
The city has also invested in expanding its electric bus fleet and has rolled out thousands of electric taxis and vehicle charging infrastructure.
Other efforts were car-free days and the School Streets programthat closes roads around schools to car traffic at pick-up and drop-off times to encourage walking and cycling.
According to the City of London, it has successfully rolled this out across 380 locations, leading to a 97% reduction in schools exceeding legal pollution limits.
Don’t forget trucks and vans
Equally important is eliminating as many trucks as possible from inner-city areas.
In other words, fighting pollution isn’t just about eliminating cars.
Research by Vanarama found in 2019 that 520,000 UK van drivers typically spend more than 20 minutes looking for a parking space for each delivery they make. This leads to an hour and 40 minutes of searching for a parking space per day.
That’s a lot of unnecessary driving and idling.
An alternative is delivery cargo bikes reducing the need for short-distance inner-city vans.
So air pollution is a complex beast. Car-free cities can help reduce pollution, but thinking they are the only thing to make places safer to live in is wrong.
If we really want to create urban centers that work for everyone, we need to look at every part of a city – and the outlying areas.
This is possible – but it won’t be easy.