The air thickens

According to a detailed study out this week, increases in road traffic mean that air quality in London is fast deteriorating - and our monitoring systems are both inadequate and piecemeal
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Time to get on our bikes

Imagine being able to walk through Trafalgar Square without risking being crushed by a speeding car. Or of being able to admire Parliament Square without the constant traffic noise.

When it comes to implementing transport initiatives to improve the environment, these are not very radical ideas. But the prospect of any of them happening within the next decade in London are remote. Yet in cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, more radical schemes to reduce car use are being implemented. In Amsterdam, street architecture is being redesigned to squeeze out cars and encourage cycling, walking and public transport. In Copenhagen, plans to build motorways into the inner city were scrapped in favour of measures to encourage cycling which has consequently grown dramatically.

Yet here it took nearly 20 years to pedestrianise Leicester Square. Now not even the most fanatical pro-roads lobbyist would deny that the scheme is a massive improvement. But attempts to extend the pedestrianised part of central London have met with constant opposition.

Taxi-drivers always moan the loudest, but neither national nor local government has ever taken them on - which is why Oxford Street is a half- cocked, semi-pedestrianised street in seemingly permanent decline.

David Hurdle, planning and transportation officer of the new Association of London Government, reckons many of these pedestrianism schemes will come about soon.

"In some cases, it really is a matter of just closing off a street and seeing what happens," he says. " Initially, there will be opposition, but eventually there will be enormous benefits for local shopkeepers. And more people will use public transport, or walk or cycle."

Indeed, when the City of London put up its cordon of plastic, preventing private cars from using much of the Square Mile, the dire predictions of traffic chaos never materialised. Cars simply found other routes. Now the City Corporation is planning to extend the area covered by the ban.

Currently, 49 per cent of journeys by Londoners are by car and only 1.5 per cent are by bicycle, compared with 40 per cent and 2.3 per cent in 1981, a reduction by half in cycle use over this period. Simply reversing the recent shift in these figures would produce enormous environmental benefits.

Until recently, the Government's position was to sit idly by. Probably its worst decision was to oppose the GLC's "fares fair" policy of the early 1980s, which led to 20 per cent reduction of car commuting within months of being implemented. Now London has the highest fares in Europe, with commuters paying an average of £11.28 a week, compared with a European average of £5.55, according to a survey published yesterday by Capital Transport Campaign.

Belatedly, the Government has begun to wake up. For example, £80m is being spent on London bus priority measures. As well as bus lanes, they include clever little widgets that ensure buses get the green light at traffic-lights. A scheme to advise passengers waiting at stops when the next bus is due is being introduced. This year, Steven Norris, the minister for transport in London, has also committed funds to a 1,200-mile Londonwide cycle network.

Mr Norris has even raised the spectre of reducing parking spaces in London. Red Routes which, as originally conceived, would have reduced many high streets to urban motorways, are, in fact, being used to increase facilities for parking and pedestrians. Other shifts in policy include the end of any attempts to build motorways into London, once the M11 link road is completed. Road pricing is even on the agenda.

Some policies, however, seem destined to make the situation worse, such as the privatisation of the railways and the sale of the London bus companies to the private sector which has little incentive to invest in new, less- polluting, buses.

It takes courage for politicians to challenge the supremacy of the car. Mr Hurdle feels that in Europe, "transport policy in cities has become a cross-party consensus which means quite radical measures can be introduced". We shall see.