Cleaning up urban transport: One of the most pressing challenges of our time
Air pollution has skyrocketed in urban areas, with air quality limits currently being breached in more than 100 European cities. NO2, a toxic gas mainly emitted by diesel vehicles, is choking residents, causing everything from asthma to dementia, as well as hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Clean Cities analysis shows that, right now, Europe’s largest cities wildly exceed the “safe” limit of NO2 pollution set by the WHO, with levels in Paris and London more than 200% higher than the recommended amount.
Cities need to do much more – and fast. Transport is the only sector where emissions have been increasing since the nineties, with almost a quarter of these (23%) coming from cities. We need to see a dramatic shift away from dirty petrol and diesel cars and vans in our cities, and towards cleaner, healthier modes of transport – such as walking, cycling, public and shared transport.
This transition to active, shared and electric mobility in cities is a triple win: Good for our climate, good for health, and good for our local economies. In 2021, data compiled by the coalition found that urban policies which either reduce car use overall or target the use of the most polluting vehicles – such as low traffic zones and low emission zones – go hand in hand with higher spending in local shops.
Backed up by science – and public demand
The science is clear and public demand for cleaner cities is on the rise.A YouGov survey commissioned by the campaign found that more than eight out of 10 residents from across 15 European cities (82%) crave more green space and greenery in their cities. Two-thirds (66%) support more space for walking and 60% back allocating more room for public transport.
City residents are also taking concrete action to become less dependent on polluting cars. In London, for instance, the campaign drew attention to the stark decline in diesel car ownership (15.2%) since the Mayor of London first announced plans to expand the city center’s low emission zone ), more than six times the trend seen elsewhere in the UK over the same period. All in all, around 127,500 diesel cars deserted the UK capital between 2017 and 2020. This dramatic shift shows how the policy is making huge inroads into Londoners’ desire for diesel.
A few thousand kilometers away in Italy, Clean Cities demonstrated the power of grassroots campaigning. Anna Becchi, the inspiring leader of Bike2School and Clean Cities’ schools coordinator, mobilised 60 groups to perform 50 flash mobs in ten Italian cities on a cold November Friday afternoon. Children, parents and teachers – fuelled by their passion for clean air and desire for safer streets – played ring-a-ring-o-roses on busy roads in front of schools, stopping traffic and calling upon local decision makers to make school streets a reality. The action received widespread media coverage nationwide, in a country where people own more cars than anywhere else in Europe and alternatives are still hardly available.
Advocating for ambitious change at the policy level
The campaign works closely with local governments to ensure ambitious policies are in place, and follow them through to ensure they work not just on paper but in practice. In Brussels, Clean Cities joined other civil society groups to call for a ban of all fossil-fuelled vehicles in the city by 2030 at the latest. A few months later, the government of the Brussels-Capital Region announced that it would tighten its low emission zone after 2025, with the proposal foreseeing the phase out of diesel cars by 2030, and petrol and gas-powered cars by 2035. A welcome improvement, but the coalition will continue to campaign for all fossil fuel-powered vehicles to be phased out by 2030 at the latest.
In Spain, T&E joined forces with Clean Cities partners ECODES and Fundación Renovables, drawing up a “Proposal for minimum standards for the regulation of Low Emission Zones”. Together, we showed that low emission zones need to be big enough to stop pollution from cars and trucks from being shifted to other parts of cities. Our proposal asked that the LEZ must cover a sufficient area to cause a switch to less polluting forms of transport such as zero-emission vehicles, public transport, cycling and walking – and not simply transfer high-emitting transport to other areas.
The campaign’s appeals don’t stop at the city level. EU-level advocacy is also crucial for change to trickle down. In November, T&E and the Clean Cities Campaign issued a joint letter calling on the EU to support efforts to improve air quality in cities. Whilst many European cities are already world leaders when it comes to urban mobility, they need the support of EU policies to scale-up these efforts and make sure that all residents of European cities can breathe cleaner air, and reap the benefits of more liveable cities.
As the year came to a close, we could proudly show the difference we had made at local but also at European level. But we are aware of the scale of the challenge lying ahead of us. Here’s to 2022 and many more exciting campaigns.