7 London pollution problems – and their solutions

Euston Road is a hotspot for poor air quality. Photo: Dan Hall
As one of London’s main transport arteries, Euston Road is a notorious hotspot for poor air quality, regularly exceeding international heath limits for toxins. But what does that actually mean for those of us who pass along or across it? And how could we improve our car-centric culture for the future? We spoke to Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at King’s College, a man who spends a fair bit of his time studying particles and pollutants, so that we might all breathe a little easier.

1. The monitoring station

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? If you look at a pollution heatmap of the borough of Camden, Euston Road glows ominously bright as the unwelcome champion of dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide and black carbon particles. The council are keen to monitor this situation, and began working closely with experts at King’s College. Although daily readings measured at their data-gathering station, sited near the Holiday Inn, continue to show unacceptably high pollution levels here on many days of the year, the results are being used to push for change, both locally and far beyond.

Solution? “The air quality monitoring department at King’s came about as a happy fluke,” Andrew tells us. “It was an experiment in the early 90s to bring health professionals, environmental scientists and local government people together, to see if new ways of working, better monitoring practices and improved data came out of it. We ended up based at King’s as it has strong ties to the NHS via its health trust. We’re actually sandwiched between the biology department and the environmental modelling department, so we have perfect access to people working on lung disease and also those projecting the effects of the air we breathe five years from now.”

2. Wellbeing Walks

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? Over 10,000 people make the journey on foot between Euston Station and St Pancras/King’s Cross stations each day. But the most obvious route is also the most polluted. Six lanes of traffic constantly thunder along Euston Road and, as we know, the air quality there is some of the worst in the whole country, so not exactly a heathy stroll.

Solution? Promoting walking routes away from the traffic. Urban Partners Wellbeing Walk, a signposted backstreet route between the area’s rail termini, has been a groundbreaking local achievement. “We measured black carbon concentrations there when it launched in 2015,” says Grieve, “and they are 50-60% lower than those along the main road. It’s a relatively easy thing to deliver, and successful too: we’re seeing a three-fold increase in people taking that route now, and other parts of London are creating similar walks.” The hope is for such routes to also have a regeneration effect, bringing shops and cafes to otherwise neglected back roads.

The Euston Town business organisation is proposing a lower-exposure route between Euston station and Regent’s Park, featuring a range of interventions, art and installations. “Not only will the route encourage a healthier access to the park,” says chief exec Simon Pitkeathley, “but it helps us to signpost the incredible asset of Drummond Street when HS2 hoarding goes up. We want to see these businesses thrive.”

3. Ditching the car

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? One of the breakthrough findings by the department at King’s was that drivers and passengers sitting in cars are exposed to higher pollution levels than pedestrians and cyclists. That gives some urgency to projects like the Mayor’s Heathy Streets for London initiative, which aim to improve everyone’s health by making it more attractive to travel by alternative means.

Solution? “Encouraging people to get out of their cars isn’t just about reducing emissions,” says Andrew, “it’s important for everyone health-wise too.” It’s so imperative, in fact, that £2.1bn is being allocated to making walking, cycling and public transport in London more attractive.

4. A grimy church

Photo: PR

Problem? Grade I-listed St Pancras New Church has suffered severe damage from pollution. Attempts to scrub years of roadside grime from its celebrated decorative features, modelled on the Acropolis of Athens, have met with limited success. And the Portland stone and terracotta details, which include two sets of imposing caryatids (columns in the form of female figures) needed a repair project, costing over £300,000.

Solution? As well as securing Heritage Lottery money for the restoration project, the church turned to an innovative tech-based fundraising solution, one that helps ease the area’s choked transport infrastructure at the same time. They put the building’s large car park on sharing economy app JustPark, so that drivers can find and use this prime location to leave the car and continue their journey by train, or into the Congestion Charge zone on foot. It’s nice to see the motor vehicle, which has brought so much harm to the Church building, directly being used to fund its repair, contributing to a reduction in the exhaust fumes pumped out by frustrated drivers in the process. Meanwhile, the Portico Project has just won the 2017 John Betjeman Award from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings for the successful restoration job.

5. Wind and Weather

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? Despite the obvious streams of traffic spewing out fumes along Euston Road, between 30-40% of airbourne pollution actually comes from elsewhere. “That includes things like hydrocarbons given off by paint, or unburned petrol from people filling up their cars” says Andrew, “plus long-lifespan particulates too, like tiny bits of rubber from tyres, asphalt from roads and industrial pollution often blowing in from neighbouring countries. On some days, depending on the wind and the weather, we can see a dome of pollution like this circulating above the whole of London, which can trigger health warnings.”

Solution? “This kind of thing needs to be tackled at an international level,” says the King’s College man. “I’ve been doing this for twelve years, and I’m fairly optimistic right now. It’s become a top tier political issue, regularly making national news, so hopefully we’re going to start making the changes that we need to from now onwards.”

6. HS2

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? Now work is underway on the High Speed train line to Birmingham and beyond, the Euston area is preparing to spend the best part of two decades as a major construction zone. And while the end product (rail travel) is a generally clean and efficient mode of transport, building sites and HGVs tend to kick up a cocktail of rather nasty airbourne dust particles and other nasties.

Solution? The team at King’s are all over this, producing detailed modelling work for Camden Council on how to cope with the many issues over the years to come. “I went to the residents’ consultations on HS2,” says Andrew, “and the number one concern was the volume of dust and soil being driven through the borough via HGVs, and the effect on their health. A lot of work is going in to ways we can minimise the impact, particularly over such a prolonged period of time.” The Council has promised to ensure HS2 contractors exceed current safety guidelines.

7. The electric future

Photo: Dan Hall

Problem? Due to the UK’s now-proven-flawed advice about ‘clean’ diesel, and the ongoing scandal of faked emission tests by likes of manufacturers like Volkswagen and Audi, our current road fleet is a fairly dirty one. “Even projections for the future effect of tougher emissions standards, such as ‘Euro 6’, can be based on an over-optimistic interpretation of lab results,” warns Andrew. But he doesn’t see adoption of electric vehicles as a realistic solution either. “Does the UK actually have enough electricity generating capacity for a mass switchover to these types of cars? No! The guys I speak to at National Grid say we just about manage with demand right now, so it’s simply not feasible.”

Solution? Smaller steps. Real results have been seen from projects such as retrofitting existing buses with better catalytic converters, and encouraging taxi owners to get zero emissions licences. “Camden and Islington have been pushing to extend the Mayor’s forthcoming Ultra Low Emissions Zone out as far as the North and South Circular roads,” says Andrew. “And I see a whole lot of grassroots projects across the city to encourage Londoners to do their bit too. We can all play our part with the choices we make in everyday life. That way, real progress can get made.”

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