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London is unquestionably one of the world’s great cities, vibrant, diverse and brimming with cultural and historical riches. But it is not always easy to live there.
Its roads are some of the most congested of any European city. Its rush-hour commuter trains are full to bursting. Its Tube stations sometimes become so overcrowded they have to be temporarily closed. Air pollution on some of its streets is so bad it breaches annual limits in a matter of days.
The official website of the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, warns bluntly that “London’s toxic air is a health crisis”, causing more than 9,000 premature deaths each year.
London is not the only EU capital with an air quality problem. About 40 per cent of its pollution comes from diesel vehicles that European governments once encouraged because they emit less climate-warming carbon dioxide than petrol cars. But diesel engines also pump out nitrogen dioxide, a gas linked to heart and lung disease that many big cities are now struggling to curb. London is among 16 places in Britain where persistent breaches of EU air pollution standards earned the UK a final warning from Brussels this year for repeatedly failing to address the problem.
Yet despite all its problems, the capital has a reputation for green innovation. “London is certainly seen by its peers as a leader on climate action, particularly around transport,” says Mark Watts, executive director of C40, a global network of big cities that champion climate policies.
Watts was a sustainable transport adviser to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who launched the city’s pioneering congestion charge in 2003. London was also one of the first big cities to bring in a public bike-sharing scheme and is cracking down on car pollution, starting with a £10 T-Charge (“T” standing for toxicity) on the oldest, dirtiest vehicles from this month.
Other improvements have helped make the capital a more pleasant place to live. Large parts of the city have been transformed by regeneration schemes in the past two decades.
London’s powerful financial services sector continues to make the city a magnet for people from around the world. Yet the uncertainty around the UK’s looming exit from the EU has focused fresh attention on how the city compares with other European capitals as a place to live. The answer is often “badly”. London has been ranked the third least liveable western European city for the past five years in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability surveys, after Lisbon and Athens.
“There are plenty of things London could adopt from other European cities to improve its appeal,” says Jon Copestake, editor of the surveys. Possible steps, he says, include cutting crime and terror threats, and improving the overcrowded transport system.
So what sorts of ideas might be borrowed from elsewhere that would make London cleaner, greener and generally more liveable?
Urban innovation spreads so fast around the world that there is little London has not tried in one form or another. Nonetheless, over the following pages are some ideas other cities have put in place that could be adopted more widely in the UK capital.
Singapore’s Green Man Plus traffic light system
It is a common sight in cities around the world: an elderly person hobbling urgently across a road before the green pedestrian light on the other side turns red. For cities trying to encourage less driving and more walking, it is a problem, especially as their populations age.
Singapore has come up with an answer. Its Green Man Plus scheme gives elderly and disabled people the ability to extend their crossing time by swiping their senior citizen cards across readers at traffic lights.
When the system began at five locations in 2009, it allowed pedestrians up to five extra seconds of “green man time” to cross the road. It proved such a success that it soon spread to more crossings and the amount of extra time allowed for people to cross was raised to as much as 13 seconds.
In a few especially busy spots near hospitals or very large roads, pedestrians were able to increase crossing times by 26 seconds in 2015.
Authorities have chosen crossings near places with a large share of elderly residents or in spots that are often visited by the elderly, such as healthcare facilities.
According to Singapore’s Land Transport Authority, the system is designed to strike a balance between the needs of pedestrians and car drivers, so that the flow of traffic is not held up excessively.
Los Angeles’ smart parking system
Drivers in London spend an average of 67 hours a year hunting for parking spots, according to transport analysts Inrix, snarling up traffic, wasting fuel and pumping out polluting fumes.
They are not alone. Notoriously traffic-clogged Los Angeles is tackling the problem with a dynamic pricing system that raises parking fees in spots where demand is high and cuts them where it is lower. The idea is to shift drivers to under-used spaces so they park their cars faster and cut congestion.
The LA Express Park system was launched in 2012 and uses sensors to monitor when spaces are full or empty. Drivers access real-time data by smartphone app, showing which spots are free. Parking congestion fell by 10 per cent after the scheme was introduced, according to Conduent, a business services company that helped develop the system.
“It’s been a huge success,” says a spokesman for LA’s Department of Transportation, adding that the number of meters had risen from 5,000 to 8,000 since the programme began. Prices do not change daily but tend to be altered once a quarter. The system allows the city to respond to businesses seeking different parking limits.
Melbourne’s green energy project
Cities everywhere are under growing pressure to use more green energy. But there is a problem: new solar or wind farms often cannot be built until developers can be sure of signing a long-term agreement with an electricity buyer — and few cities are big enough to seal such a deal on their own.
Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne, has found a solution. The council teamed up with a group of banks, universities, zoos and other organisations to form a group with the purchasing power to support a new green energy scheme.
The Melbourne Renewable Energy Project aims to buy more than 100GW hours of energy, which is enough to keep the lights on in more than 28,000 households for a year.
The group launched a tender process last year and has picked a preferred project that each member is currently considering. An announcement on the final decision is expected before the end of this year.
“The project will change the way large organisations purchase electricity in Australia,” says Arron Wood, Melbourne’s deputy lord mayor. “Importantly, it will enable large customers to have greater influence and certainty over their energy costs and source.”
A river highway through Paris
Trucks delivering goods in cities cause traffic jams and air pollution, especially as online shopping deliveries soar. In Paris, one retailer has chosen another route: the Seine. For the past five years, the Franprix convenience store chain has been shipping stock by barge from a port south-east of Paris up to a spot near the Eiffel Tower, from where it is delivered to its shops.
The group has expanded its use of the river and now delivers to 300 of its 350 stores in and around Paris by barge, up from 135 branches in early 2016. Franprix estimates this takes 3,600 trucks off the road each year and saves about 82,600 litres of fuel.
Cost is a hurdle, as is finding appropriate berths. But campaigners in London are trying to push the idea, including some who argue that goods transported by river could be delivered to their final destination by bike rather than by truck.
“It would be great to have the Thames used for goods,” says Ivor Chomacki, a member of the UK Cycle Logistics Federation, which is trying to boost the use of cargo delivery bikes.
Copenhagen’s organic food
Denmark’s capital is known as one of the world’s greenest and most bicycle-friendly cities. Now it has become an organic food champion.
In 2007, authorities decided the food bought by the city for municipal organisations —- including nurseries, kindergartens and public schools — would be 90 per cent organic by the end of 2015, up from 51 per cent at the time.
By last year, the city claims, most of the nearly 900 kitchens in its organisations were serving 90 per cent organic food. The shift has been made without needing to find extra money for more expensive organic goods. How? By buying vegetables and fruit in season, cutting food waste and using less meat.
In addition, food is cooked using fresh ingredients, rather than being bought in packets — a policy that saves money, authorities say.
Seoul’s version of the High Line
New York captured city-dwellers’ imaginations worldwide in 2009 when it began to open the High Line. The elevated public park on the west side of Manhattan is built on a 2.3km stretch of disused railway that once transported frozen turkeys, among other goods.
Earlier this year, South Korea’s capital, Seoul, inaugurated its own version, a green walkway on an old highway overpass nearly 1km long that had been destined for demolition.
The walkway is known as Seoullo 7017 — because the overpass was built in 1970 and reopened in 2017 — and has been designed to breathe new life into less-than-lovely areas around the city’s central station. Covered in hundreds of different trees and plants, it is lit by LED lights that make it glow blue at night.
London has had a stab at similar projects, most recently drafting plans for a contentious new Thames garden bridge that the mayor, Sadiq Khan, pulled the plug on earlier this year.
Campaigners have now alighted on a new target: turning a section of old rail track between Camden and King’s Cross into a public garden.
The pedestrianised Right Bank of the Seine in Paris
Motoring groups said it was a disaster. Authorities in neighbouring districts said it was clogging up their roads with extra traffic. But Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, pressed on to turn a stretch of the city’s Right Bank into a car-free, pedestrianised zone that has transformed one of the capital’s busy roadways.
Skaters and joggers mingle with lunching families and dawdling tourists in what Hidalgo branded a “magnificent walkway” when she officially launched it in April.
Hidalgo has effectively created a new park in the middle of Paris by closing off nearly two miles of roadway along the banks of the river Seine.
The move is part of the socialist mayor’s broader efforts to make tackling air pollution a priority since her election in 2014.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has similar plans. He was elected last year after promising to work on pedestrianising London’s Oxford Street and turn one of the world’s best known shopping thoroughfares into a “tree-lined avenue”. This would be a transformational move, considering that about 500,000 people visit or work in Oxford Street and surrounding areas every day.
Khan has already begun consultation on the idea of reducing Oxford Street vehicle traffic. Depending on the outcome of that exercise, Transport for London says a second consultation on more specific plans could start later this year, with a view to implementing the scheme in late 2018.
London’s current pollution problems look tame by 1950s standards. The Great Smog that hit London in December 1952 killed some 4,000 people, with up to 8,000 more dying from related causes in the following months. The noxious air was the result of an anticyclone trapping fumes near ground level during cold weather. The low-grade coal Londoners relied on for heating in the postwar period produced high levels of sulphur dioxide. The shock caused by this lethal episode provoked action, leading to a ban on coal-burning in many urban areas in 1956.