How coronavirus will change commuting - and air pollution
FT's Leslie Hook investigates how the world's biggest cities are using lockdown to reclaim roads and give more space to cyclists and pedestrians. Coronavirus could accelerate plans to cut transport emissions and curb air pollution.
Produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy; additional filming by Petros Gioumpasis; motion graphics by Victor Diaconescu; additional footage from Reuters and Getty
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Coronavirus lockdowns have had a profound impact on the environment. In April, daily global carbon dioxide emissions were down 17 per cent compared to the same time last year. And levels of other toxic fumes like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone were much lower than average, too.
Almost half of that slump in emissions came from power generation and heavy industry, as manufacturing ground to a halt. But almost half again, came from a decline in road traffic, as people were forced to stay home during lockdown. Now that travel bans are lifting around the world, a lot depends on how we choose to get around and particularly, on how and if we choose to commute to the office.
Millions have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. And millions more have adapted to working from home. One way or another, many of us could be staying away from the office in the long-term.
The future of the office could be in doubt. Investment in London's office space market dropped to £2.3bn in the first quarter of 2020. That's almost a third down from the long-term average of £3.4bn.
If London's office workers do stay home long-term, lockdown has given us a clear picture of what that would mean for air pollution. Air quality has improved by a third around some of the capital's prime corporate real estate, mostly thanks to a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions from cars.
Keith, you are the chair of the Health and Environment Committee at the City of London, which has seen a huge impact from coronavirus. What sort of changes have you seen in air pollution levels during the lockdown?
Back in 2014, we had some roadside measuring stations that were recording 120 micrograms per cubic metre. Now that's come way down. Everything was under the 40 micrograms per cubic metre through the lockdown. Also, particulate matter, the PM10s and the PM2.5s, which are the really damaging pollutants - the PM2.5s in particular, get right into people's lungs - those are the things that would cause premature death through cardiovascular and respiratory disease. And it's worth bearing in mind that 64,000 people are dying prematurely in the UK from breathing polluted air - 64,000.
The best way to limit particulate matter could be keeping road restrictions in place long-term. If commuters take their cars after lockdown, this type of pollution could bounce back. In some places, it could even be worse than before.
Peak rush hour traffic in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, for example, is about 10 per cent higher than its 2019 baseline. And congestion has crept up in cities where emergency road measures no longer apply. It's a trend that London's Deputy Mayor for Environment is determined to avoid.
Thank you for joining us, Shirley. Just to start out with, can you outline some of the specific steps that are being taken now to help people get around safely?
Well, you live in London. So you know the streets here are very narrow. We don't have lots of space. So we have to reclaim some of the road space in order to allow pedestrians to pass each other safely and to enable people to cycle more safely, so carving out space on the road for them.
Now these are emergency measures that the mayor and the local authorities are bringing in to deal with the situation. But these are things that we were already talking about in the mayor's strategy, the environment strategy, our transport strategy, and so on. So now we want to see, is there a way of accelerating the implementation, the retention of those things, and locking them down as more permanent features.
That's so interesting. So what you're saying is that you do hope that some of these measures become permanent and stick around.
Yes, definitely. And what we're being told is since the lockdown and the reduction in cars, people can actually visibly see and sort of taste and smell that there is less air pollution in the air. And we want that to continue. And I think we want a car-free recovery, really.
Lockdown has given Londoners the chance to experience a road network more geared towards non-drivers. Similar experiments have been taking place across the globe. New York City is planning to open up 100 miles of streets for joggers, walkers, and cyclists.
Bogota has added 47 miles of temporary cycle lanes to its 340 mile network. The mayor of Paris has set aside 300m to give bikers more space on the roads. And Barcelona is reclaiming seven and 1/2 miles of streets for pedestrians over weekends and adding 13 miles to its cycle network. All of these measures are being put in place to encourage more active travel, cycling, walking, or even an e-scooter - anything to get yourself from A to B without getting on a crowded bus or train. Anything except driving, that is.
This is one of the busiest roads into central London. But about half of it has been given over to pedestrians with these blue barricades that you see. Believe it or not this is rush hour. But there's still plenty of room for people to move around, even with a camera crew in tow. The real winners of active travel schemes, though, are cyclists.
With city streets transformed into cycle ways, planners hope that millions of trips will be made on two wheels instead of four, even after travel restrictions are lifted. If that happens, transport for London predicts that cycling in the capital could increase as much as tenfold in the coming months.
We've seen record usage of the Santander cycle scheme. We've seen record levels of cycling. And some huge increases - I think on one weekend, we saw over 170 per cent increase in cycling on the counters that we have measuring cycling in central London. And I can see that trend continuing on into the future.
But surely not everyone's going to be happy if road space is given over to cyclists and pedestrians more permanently. I mean, have you had any pushback from delivery truck services or taxi drivers, people who are used to more driving on London's roads?
I mean, freight is absolutely the lifeblood of London. It's the thing that delivers all the things that we need. So it's really important that we're able to support freight at this time, to be able to move around. The same is true, of course, for taxis. And black taxis, in particular, play an important role for accessibility.
So it's a constant balance. And we need to really make sure that the balance is continually evolving so that people are able to use the bus, they're able to walk, and they're able to cycle, and they don't feel the need to be in their private car. Because clearly, what we don't want to happen is we don't want to have huge levels of car use and congestion with all the pollution issues that gives.
Right now, these road closures are emergency measures designed to help social distancing. But if residents and city officials decide to keep them permanently, lockdown could be the moment that cities around the world choose cleaner air over the car.