The Air that I Breathe

(original edit of article for Taxi Magazine)

Congratulations to Boris for winning a prestigious international award given in recognition of cities on their efforts to tackle air quality and climate change. The C40 was awarded to Boris in New York for his work towards low emission taxis.
The award must come as a surprise to many. Boris had previously been criticised by MPs for failing to tackle air quality, and faces heavy fines from the EU over repeated breaches of air quality standards. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) estimate that thousands of Londoners die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution (30,000 nationally). It also costs the economy sixteen billion pounds. Earlier this year, London suffered such serious smog problems that children, the elderly, and those with respiratory illnesses were advised to stay indoors for a couple of days.
Cab drivers, in particular, must be wondering what exactly Boris has done to deserve such an award. We’ve read about low-emission taxis through the trade press, but none of us are sure when they will be available, how much they will cost, and how we might charge them. From where I’m sitting, all Boris seems to have done is take the Fairway off the road leaving us with vehicles said to be even more harmful to air quality.
Vehicle pollution is made much worse by slow moving and stationary traffic. The authorities in control of our roads are misguided in their pursuance of “improvements” to traffic systems, and guilty of poor management of road closures. Thoroughfares are being narrowed all the time, and some streets are closed completely. Centre paving is often put in so that whenever you find yourself part of a traffic jam, there is no escape route. You are stuck there pumping diesel fumes into the air. It’s recently become impossible to get off many sections of Regent Street, and much of Oxford Street has been effectively made single-lane through narrowing. The proposed cycle superhighway will create untold misery. The embankment will be even slower than it is now, and Parliament Square will be gridlocked. When it’s not closed completely for events.
Meanwhile, Islington Council are threatening vehicle drivers with fines who refuse to switch off their engines while stationary. I agree that drivers should turn their engines off if stationary for any length of time. Apart from the health risks, burning diesel costs money. It’s infuriating when you are stationary for no good reason. I often find myself idling for a full minute in Baker Street, by the station, or in Regent Street at Air Street. These stoppages are for the benefit of pedestrians, but do they really need a whole minute? Fifteen seconds would be long enough.
The traffic system around Trafalgar Square needs re-designing. We lost valuable road space some years’ ago and it causes chaos in whatever direction you’re heading: entering the square from Northumberland Avenue you have just a few seconds to fight your wary around traffic that’s still coming down from St Martin’s Place. Coming around Pall Mall East past Canada House you have to wait for three buses to move off that are caught at the next set of lights. Bad lane marking hasn’t helped nearby Piccadilly Circus. Approaching from lower Regent Street there’s a dead lane on the right bringing you into the path of oncoming buses, and the markings for Shaftesbury Avenue are misleading.
Every weekend, and on an increasing amount of weekdays, London is blighted by closures and disruption. Imagine all the pollution caused when sixteen bus routes are diverted due to one major road closure.
Some disruption is unavoidable, such as the Crossrail project. Shorter term road closures are often badly indicated. Sometimes you get a yellow Diversion sign, sometimes you don’t. Where diversion signs exist they are often inadequate and confusing. Last month’s road closures affecting Wardour Street and Mabledon Place came with no warning signs until you’d committed yourself and found your exit barred. There should be a law where road closures are clearly notified in advance, giving the reason and the duration of closure, and providing clearer diversion information. I found myself going around in circles around the Aldgate one-way system a few weeks’ ago due to inadequate signage. Aldgate is not a nice place to be stuck in at the best of times.
Several crucial Central London streets were closed for the TUC demonstration on Saturday October 18th. The barriers were going up in the morning so it was clearly a pre-planned event, but there had been no advance warning to motorists. Had drivers known, they could have taken the sensible choice to stay away. Instead, there was chaos for four hours. That’s a lot of pollution.
Boris will be remembered by many as the bloke who arranged music and food festivals, and numerous running and cycling events. At one time it was just the London Marathon, now roads are disrupted almost every weekend. These events are nice for some, but they come at a cost. Part of the cost is in increased pollution – and possibly a lot of Euros in compensation to the EU. All these events look very exciting and colourful on the television, but the camera needs to swing off the Mall or the Embankment and show all the buses queuing nose to tail pumping out smoke.
I see there’s a motor show being held on Regent Street on November 1st. What irony! That road might as well be designated a Play Street and have done with it.
There’s nothing us cab drivers can do to help with clean air as we can only drive the vehicles we’re told we can drive. Private hire drivers have a choice. Buses are slowly getting cleaner – but not faster, particularly as they seem to breed like rabbits. I expect that when Boris is gone we’ll get the blame as usual…

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