Clean Cities

A breath of clean air

In 2020 city life came to a standstill. Bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs bolted their doors as European cities sought to stop the spread of Covid-19. Yet it wasn’t all bad for urban life. Lockdowns brought clearer skies and less polluted cities and thousands of cycle lanes and pedestrian zones were created to aid social distancing.

Things are unlikely to return to normal. The morning commute in particular may never be the same again as workers and businesses get used to working from home. However, with fears of airborne infection still at large, urban transport has taken a hit. This will need to change to avoid cities backsliding to pre-Covid pollution levels.

Residents don’t want to see air pollution levels return

Between 14 and 21 May, T&E, together with YouGov, surveyed over 7,000 adults in 23 metropolitan areas: Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milan, Paris, Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Hamburg, Köln, Frankfurt, Munich, Greater London, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, as well as the Belgian regions of Flanders and Wallonia. Results showed that a clear majority of urban residents across the continent did not want to see air pollution return to pre-COVID-19 levels. They supported profound changes in transport, like banning dirty cars from city centres and protecting clean air. It was mentioned in 133 newspapers covering 22 countries and reached more than 18 million people.

Despite this, backsliding didn’t take long. In June, a T&E commissioned study found that large European cities had seen a significant decrease of air pollution following the outbreak of Covid-19, but that air pollution climbed back up towards pre-Covid levels in all cities as soon as lockdown ended.

Infographic Clean Cities

Example from the UK of public transport rebounding slower than private motor vehicles

This is in part caused by fears over public transport. Another T&E-commissioned report highlighted the risk of an increase in car usage after lockdown measures were lifted. This report was promoted at national level thanks to T&E and the help of a coalition of five organisations: Greenpeace Belgium, Les chercheurs d’air, Alternatiba Paris, Legambiente and Ecologistas en Acción. 

Paris, summer 2020

In Paris, where T&E started the pilot Clean Cities campaign, we ran a petition calling on the future mayor of Paris to halve road traffic by 2026. This petition gathered more than 9,000 signatures and was supported by the transport deputy mayor at the time. In the lead-up to the election, Alternatiba organised two ‘citizens empowerment’ actions and produced a strong social media campaign, which was retweeted by Anne Hidalgo herself. 

Rome, autumn 2020

T&E, together with its Italian partner's Legambiente, put consistent pressure on the local administration in Rome to pedestrianise one of the roads around the Colosseum. The government finally agreed and a portion of via San Gregorio — which links Circo Massimo to the Colosseum — is set to become an exclusive bike and pedestrian path for the citizens of Rome early this year. This was the first step in bringing this ancient area of Rome into the pedestrianised GRAB network (a 46-kilometer loop around Rome), taking it back for the city dwellers - and the climate.

What to do with all that public space?

T&E’s proposal came first in a public consultation asking what we should do with public space if we don't use it to park cars anymore. T&E asked for car parking spaces in front of schools to be used to create space to play, relax and for other recreational activities. 

Will it last?

2020 accelerated social trends and attitudes that have the potential to clean up urban transport. Citizens have had a taste of clean air and there is a greater appetite for reclaiming public space. Will it stay that way when life returns to normal speed? The year ahead will be crucial.