How to keep cities pollution-free after virus lockdowns lift

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Cyclists and pedestrians cross the Weser river in Bremen, northern Germany, 26 April 2020. [Photo: EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN]

As authorities across Europe prepare for a stepwise lift of coronavirus lockdown measures, they are facing a make-or-break moment for urban mobility. Yoann Le Petit details four proven strategies that should keep cities free of pollution as normality starts to return.

Yoann Le Petit is clean vehicles and new mobility officer at green NGO Transport & Environment.

The decisions taken in the coming weeks will define how healthy, resilient and liveable our cities will be in the future.

Without decisive action, the recent drop in air pollution would sadly remain a breeze of clean air, soon replaced by a rapid return of toxic fumes as already observed in China, with people switching to private cars and avoiding public transport.

This risk is particularly worrying given the growing evidence indicating that air pollution probably makes us more vulnerable to the effects of the virus.

But every crisis is an opportunity and the good news is that research suggests that people are more likely to adopt new mobility habits at key moments of change in their lives.

Cities across the world have understood that now is the time to move towards clean mobility and have already begun to remodel their urban space. Luckily, no mayor needs to reinvent the wheel to keep emissions down after the lockdown.

There are a multitude of inspiring examples, dating back as far as the oil crisis in the 1970s when Dutch cities started a complete make-over that has turned them into some of the most liveable cities worldwide.

There are at least four proven strategies to tackle toxic air pollution, curb climate damaging emissions and prepare a zero-emission future, which is announced by the European Green Deal strategy and already being translated into reality by a group of leading cities.

The way forward

First, urban space allocation needs overhaul. Not only to make ‘physical distancing’ easier but also to make space for a cleaner mix of mobility.

As a study by a French governmental agency showed last year, reducing car traffic is indispensable to quickly reduce pollution. This is already happening in a number of European cities.

To name but a few: Berlin has added new ‘pop-up bike lanes’, the greater Paris region will invest €300 million to build a 680km long cycling network, Krakow plans to add cycling infrastructure and to widen pavements and Vilnius will turn its centre into a vast open-air cafe.

Even Brussels is transforming the city centre into an area where walking and cycling have priority over cars and will add 40km of bike lanes. Dublin has started to temporarily remove parking lots to allow for safer cycling lanes and ‘physical distancing’.

Second, these remakes of urban space will only work if public transport with its proven benefits for clean air is strengthened. This could prove more challenging than ever, as the sector currently is in a dire situation with people avoiding cramped spaces.

The drop in ridership ranges from 80% for buses to 92% for the tube in London. In the case of Germany, transport experts expect that in the worst case scenario the virus could lead to a 50% reduction in public transport use by 2023.

Immediate measures are needed and are being rolled out, such as deep cleaning of vehicles or making disinfectant dispensers available to passengers.

To create new jobs and revive the appeal of public transport now is the time to double down on electrifying the bus fleet. ‘Modern, clean and safe’ should be the slogan. This will make buses more attractive overall, as exemplified in Paris where 93% of bus users think transitioning to electric models shows that an operator cares about its customers.

In parallel, digital ticketing solutions will help reduce physical contact points and facilitate real-time information. But this also calls for more flexible work and school timetables to avoid rush hour effects in metro or buses. New habits like teleworking should be continued where feasible to reduce the need for daily commutes every weekday.

Tools are available

Third, it is time to get dirty vehicles off the road. As a first step, Low-Emission Zones have proven powerful to accelerate the uptake of less polluting cars and reduce air pollution.

Evidence from London, Madrid and Paris shows that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can rapidly be reduced by up to a third. But in the current crisis, several cities – including Brussels, Milan and London – have decided to suspend existing policies or delay new ones to help healthcare workers and essential deliveries.

While such temporary decisions are justified, it is vital that these proven instruments for cleaner air are fully reactivated as soon as possible.

What is more, gradual reductions in pollution are no longer sufficient: a group of leading European cities has already set a course towards Zero-Emission Zones and there is now a golden opportunity for more mayors to integrate such policies into post-virus planning.

Fortunately, alternatives to dirty combustion engines are now available and getting more and more affordable. For passenger cars, the first months of 2020 saw unprecedented EV sales, with sales of electric cars in Western Europe reaching a mighty 10% of sales (compared to 3% only a few months before).

Electric buses are also conquering European streets and help reduce costs for our mobility systems. The current crisis is the opportunity to do what so many cities wanted to but lacked the opportunity, i.e. ban internal combustion engine cars from their streets.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Last, if we combine these changes in urban space, public transport and zero-emission vehicles with innovative services that are electric (or zero emission), shared and available on demand, we can make a step towards ‘transport heaven’.

Transport & Environment modelled the combined impact of these policies last year and found that car kilometres travelled could be reduced by up to 60%. But this also means that high-mileage vehicles, such as taxis, private hire vehicles such as Uber and Kapten or delivery fleets, need to switch rapidly to electric vehicles.

And new services need to complement, not replace public transport by, for example, offering cheaper prices on ride-hailing services for specific trips, as rolled out in the French city of Nice at night time.

The decisions taken in the next weeks and months will determine whether we make or break our cities. The lockdowns gave us a glimpse of what our cities and air quality can be like without polluting engines.

As France’s President Macron recently put it: “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air. People will say…’I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it.”

We have the proven tools to avoid a return of toxic air and must now put them to use.

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