The end of Britain’s first ‘zero emissions street’ scheme has led to a return to illegal pollution levels next to one of the country’s biggest cultural centres.
Pollution levels had dropped on Beech Street in London, which passes the Barbican Centre, after the City of London Corporation introduced an experimental traffic ordinance limiting it to electric vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.
But in September last year, the city ended the order, welcoming diesel and petrol vans, cars and taxis to the streets. Nitrogen dioxide levels, which damage the airways of people and animals and cause lung disease, are again above legal limits.
The latest data from London Air shows that so far this year the average level of NO2 recorded at Beech Street has been 43 micrograms per cubic metre. The legal limit is on average 40µg/m3 over one year. The latest guidelines from the World Health Organization suggest a limit of 10 µg/m3.
“Dirty air is back at the Barbican,” said Oliver Lord, the UK’s Clean Cities campaign manager, who commissioned the air quality analysis on Beech Street by Imperial College London. “The reopening of Beech Street to polluting diesel vehicles has led to higher levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide, with the street again at risk of breaching legal limits.
“The City’s commitment to a zero-emissions zone at the Barbican must be brought forward as soon as possible or it risks being negligent by giving cleaner air and then taking it away.”
Beech Street, a road tunnel running under a section of the Barbican Estate in the City of London from where fumes cannot disperse easily, had been a notorious pollution hotspot for years. Before the project, the average concentration of NO2 in the air was 58 µg/m3.
“Beech Street is experiencing high levels of air pollution as it is a busy, closed thoroughfare,” the city had said when the zero-emissions program launched in March 2020. “A significant improvement in the quality of air is expected, resulting in health benefits for the many pedestrians and cyclists who use the street.
NO2 levels fell by 67%, to 19.5 µg/m3, even without any application beyond signs and markings. However, this was at the same time as the first coronavirus lockdown and a general drop in traffic.
After lockdown restrictions were eased and life started to return to the city streets, and enforcement measures were implemented, there was a slight increase in NO2 levels, to an average of 24.7 µg/m3.
Louise Mittal, from Imperial College London’s environmental research group and co-author of the report, said: “We found that there was a drop in NO2 concentrations when the zero emission street was in place. It fell more than other sites in London, then rebounded when the street was removed. Basically, we saw an improvement when the program was in place,” she said.
Overall, only around 930 vehicles per day used Beech Street during the program, compared to 9,500 before the restrictions began. Around 34,000 tickets have been issued to motorists caught crossing the road in petrol or diesel vehicles.
The City of London said it ended the Beech Street scheme because the 18-month deadline for its trial traffic order had expired. Last December, society members voted to launch a public consultation to make the Beech Street project permanent.