London has worst air quality among European capitals, and with a growing population, things are only set to get worse. Elisabeth Braw looks at the possible transport solutions
In 16 years, London is expected to have 10 million residents. London’s air quality is already the worst among European capitals, and the city’s popularity risks creating a city where residents waste ever more time and pollute ever more air looking for parking.
“Many aspects of London traffic are very good, for example the investment in public transport,” says Malcolm Fergusson, transport and sustainability expert, and author of a new report about London traffic. “But we still have too many cars, and the effect of the congestion charge is declining. We need more space for busses, bikes and delivery vehicles.”
While the share of car trips is declining, London’s growing population means the traffic is getting worse. The 10 million residents expecting to live here in 2030 will add a projected 350,000 cars to the 2.6m cars already populating the city’s streets.
According to Fergusson’s report, commissioned by Zipcar, car clubs are one of the answers. He proposes that the mayor of London in conjunction with the boroughs and TfL should promote car club membership by allowing drivers to access cars using their Oyster card, featuring car clubs on TfL’s websites and apps, and by offering drivers who give up their personal car discounted car club memberships.
“In general, cars are used remarkably little, just a couple of hours a day,” says Fergusson. “For every car-club car that’s introduced, 14 individual cars are taken off the roads. And car-sharing saves people money.”
Charles Ball, chief executive of Carplus, an organisation campaigning for sustainable car use, adds: “We need car-sharing to be a more explicit part of London as it grows, and we need to incentivise people to do more car-sharing.”
Other cities, from Paris and Berlin to Edinburgh, already have more extensive car-sharing systems. New York alone has more car-club members – 200,000 – than the UK combined. But cities are also experimenting with other transport solutions as they try to limit their gridlocks and CO2 emissions.
“Over 600 cities now have bike-sharing systems, which makes it today’s fastest-growing traffic innovation,” says Sascha Haselmeyer, CEO of city innovation platform Citymart.com. “Cities like it because it ticks all the sustainability boxes, it’s very popular and it’s 90% funded through advertising. And it doesn’t require any infrastructure changes.”
There’s no doubt that the bike-sharing systems have been successful in getting people to change their modes of transport: Barcelona, had around 10,000 cyclists before introducing a bike-share programme. Today, it has some 250,000.
Initiatives that don’t require major infrastructure changes have a big advantage. If cities are dragging their feet on replacing today’s inadequate city-street grids, it’s because infrastructure changes are extremely expensive – and in a decade or two cities may have different needs yet again. Ryan Chin, a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, which develops innovative urban solutions, notes that cities have already been retrofitted to accommodate large-scale personal car use. By contrast, “urban furniture”, fixtures that are added to the streetscape, are much easier and cheaper to add. “Initiatives that are expanding include safe bicycle-parking, electric vehicle charging stations, and car-sharing parking spaces,” says Haselmayer.
Indeed, the restrictions posed by the impracticality of changing the infrastructure have forced traffic planners to become more creative. San Francisco has a flexible parking-fee system in place, which charges different rates depending on the demand, and other cities are building wireless systems that can remotely manage both electric-vehicle charging stations, street lights and parking meters.
And in a growing trend, cities are developing “complete streets”, ordinary streets with special sections, lanes and islands for bike riders, buses, public transport users and pedestrians. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, more than 600 American cities and communities now feature complete streets. The streets look much like an updated version of a 1920s street, with pedestrians and cyclists sharing the space with cars.
So, is promoting car-sharing really in the best interest of London or any other major city? One might argue that even car-sharing clubs have had their day and that government efforts should now focus on more sustainable modes of transportation, including electric cars.
Still, argues Jonathan Hampson, head of locations at Zipcar, car clubs have a role in helping reduce congestion and improving air quality. Electric cars aren’t suitable for extensive use in the company’s fleet: “They’re too expensive and hard to resell. We have four [electric] Vauxhall Amperas in our fleet of 1,500 cars, but having 1,500 electric cars wouldn’t make sense. However, we’re working with manufacturers to find a way that they can provide us with electric vehicles. We could help popularise them.”
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