Hidden danger of pollution on our city streets
9 Feb 2017
Why is it that when noxious fumes spill onto our streets from cars, getting up our noses and in our lungs, nothing is done in Cambridge?
World cities are choking on particulates, many thrown out by diesel and other vehicle engines, and not just in the appalling smog's of China and India -- our own British cities the problem is now becoming as bad. In recent weeks London reported pollution levels as high as Beijing. And in Cambridge the air quality get out of hand too -- yet unnecessarily idling cars are ignored.
The prevailing thinking is that we don't need to worry, that low pollution in our fair-seeming city is good enough. In fact the air quality here hits moderate or high levels of danger at points around the city on dozens of days a year. Check the air quality index here.
Yet a young customer in the dry cleaners’ on Emmanuel Street told me, 'Cambridge is a lovely city, clean and free of contamination. Everyone travels by bike.'
Really? Looking out at the vehicle-clogged road outside suggested she was wrong. Even as we stood talking, a huge lorry was reversing on to the new-style dropped curb pavement, belching out fumes that gather in the growing brains of children, and babies wheeled at exhaust height.
'They do it all the time.' said the assistant as he wrapped the clothes, 'and cars drive on to the pavement constantly to make way for the buses.'
Yes the buses. They too emit clouds of diesel fumes. But at least they are carrying large numbers of people. Worse is the line of private cars, all parked illegally, throwing out fumes as they idled their engines, a practice proven to intensify the effect of dangerous emissions.
In a fit of citizen activism, I left the dry cleaners’ and marched up to a Range Rover, engine on. I knocked on the window and a smiling driver looked innocently inquisitive, 'Have you heard of pollution?' I asked. Still smiling he nodded. 'Well could you switch off your engine then?' Bigger smile. 'No.'
And why should he when every car in the centre of Cambridge is doing the same thing? Two policemen walked by. It is an offence to idle an engine on the road, except at a red light, but there was no recognition from these officers.
The law is clear -- unnecessary stationary idling is an offence under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, enforcing rule 123 of the Highway Code -- but ignored everywhere in Cambridge.
A generation ago, policeman gave fixed penalty notices for the same infringement still on the books -- a £20 fixed-penalty fine under the Road Traffic (Vehicle Emissions) Regulations 2002, rising to £40 if unpaid within a given time frame.
Some taxi drivers, however, seem to think they've got their own set of rules.
'My taxi would turn up early and sit outside my house for 10 to 15 minutes with its lights on and engine running,' Naphtalia Loderick, an London editor who faced problems with noisy taxis at 6am. 'I had to get up even earlier simply to go out and ask them to cut the engine. They seemed oblivious to the noise, let alone the environmental pollution they were causing.'
Down St. Andrew’s Street a full line of taxi drivers all with diesel engines were likewise running their motors. There was clearly no fear of being fined.
Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) are issued by councils rather than the police. Islington Council in London mounted what's thought to be the first crackdown of its kind on vehicles churning out 'unnecessary pollution.' Why not here?
At the Council Offices in Regent Street, Pollution Controller Dr. Lewis Herbert's office answered some questions about what was happening to help the worsening air quality.
Is the Council taking measures against idling of engines? No
Is there any action proposed on dirty emissions? No, there used to be but no.
Is there any enforcement of the laws against pollution from stationary cars? No.
Are the Police enforcing the rules against idling engines? As far as we know, No.
Are diesel cars to be restricted in the new plans? No.
In London things are different. New Mayor Sadiq Khan has banned ‘dirty’ engines from the environs of London. Diesel-free Zones are in process. At bus stops, pollution levels are indicated on screens to raise awareness.
The Metropolitan police have ordered fleet of electric cars.
Paris is banning old cars. Berlin has restricted car access to emergency vehicles. Public health and the welfare of growing children the most vulnerable of all the victims of particulate is beginning worldwide to take precedence.
Back here in Cambridge awareness of this danger is more or less flat lining.
More worryingly still, air pollution seems to take a backseat in discussions about the future of Cambridge traffic. The opposition Liberal Democrats, although they support electric cars and better cleaner buses (with a more reliable service) are now campaigning against measures that would restrict the staggering 215,000 cars that come into Cambridge each day. A substitute for the defeated more radical scheme, this latest, modified attempt to halt the rise of congestion is finding no better response than the last.
Pollution appears to be right down the list of considerations when it comes to action on traffic, but why?
Clearly reform is hard. People are loath to give up car use, and the high cost of replacing diesel cars is daunting. Does that mean it should not be done? When the 1959 Clean Air Act came into force to combat the choking smogs of industrial cities, it banned coal fires, requiring use of smoke free fuel. It was expensive but worthwhile. Once-polluted cities where washing on the lines outside darkened with black smuts as it dried, were transformed.
But of course the trade offs are not straightforward. Everyone now loves the convenience of the motor car, the ease of transport, the comfort, even luxury of sitting in their own space, cooled or warmed to a required temperature, serenaded by favourite music. Seven out of ten diesel owners questioned in a survey last month calmly admit they would certainly buy another one next time. Or even a second diesel car.
To change to emission-free transport is not easy. Yet surely some compromises must come. We cannot have it all – clean air and unrestricted motoring.
Asked why she and her party oppose the new attempt to restrict cars and reduce pollution, a Lib Dem spokeswoman explained. 'It would be highly inconvenient for people,' she said. 'A mother who wants to take her daughter to school with her cello,' for instance, would face problems.
She would of course, but she would overcome them in the wider interest of clean air.
Meanwhile here are some suggestions to immediately reduce air pollution from diesel, some of them already adopted by capitals all over Europe including London:
1. Ban heavily polluting cars from the city centre
2. Prioritize pollution breaches by mandating Police to arrest or caution heavy pollutors
3. Issue, through Police Parking Officers and Community Police, fixed penalties for engine idling.
4. Discipline taxis who idle engines when parked up
5. Limit use of diesel cars by half by banning certain registration plates on certain days as in Paris and Cologne.
6. Institute a scrappage scheme for old diesel cars.
7. Raise awareness of air pollution from cars especially around schools and nurseries.
Thanks to Jeanette Miller, a managing director of Geoffrey Miller Solicitors, for legal information.