London slowly moves to cleaner transport to tackle pollution
As political pressure grows over declining air quality in the world's big cities, London has become a test bed for policy among global capitals. The FT's Daniel Garrahan reports asks whether the transition to electric vehicles is being made quickly enough.
Filmed by Carlos Homer and Petros Gioumpasis. Produced, directed and edited by Daniel Garrahan
London, a densely populated global city. It's been a world leader in limiting the number of cars on its roads, but there have been illegal levels of air pollution here since 2010. When it comes to nitrogen dioxide, which can lead to breathing problems and lower life expectancy, London's air can be almost as dirty as New Delhi or Beijing.
Many people blame diesel powered cars, buses, and taxis, which often sit in traffic, engines running idle. The political pressure to go electric is mounting. John Dowd has driven a black cab in London for almost a decade. He switched from an old diesel taxi to this new electric model four months ago.
The vehicle's bigger. We're up higher. It sort of feels like you're driving a Range Rover. It has more presence on the road. It still has the turning circle that the old cabs had.
The passenger experience isn't bad, either.
First thing you notice sitting back here is this panoramic roof which, even on a typically beautiful London summer's day, such as today, offers some pretty impressive views of the London skyline. You've got your USB ports here, to charge your mobile phone. There's Wi-Fi and there's certainly a lot more space back here, too, with room for six passengers rather than five.
The only thing that I'd say that this car shares with its diesel powered predecessor is the suspension, which, while a lot smoother a ride is still a little on the firm side.
Crucially for John, the cost savings of going electric made the small extra costs involved in upgrading worthwhile and he wasn't deterred by concerns over the electric taxi's range.
We're getting in the region of 70 miles out of the battery. Once you run low on battery power, it has a petrol range extender, which will kick in.
But a 70 mile range falls well short of the 100 plus miles that most cabbies will get through in an average shift. Taxi drivers who want to go 100% electric will have to take time out from their shift to recharge. The range extender is efficient, but there are emissions from its petrol engine.
Going electric isn't just for eco warriors. Greg Cohen drives across London every day in his job as a commercial property developer. He still prefers to drive his gas guzzling Porsche SUV at the weekends. This electric car is a perfect fit for work.
It's a small car, easy to park. In Westminster, you don't pay for parking after 10 minutes. No congestion charge. The charges for electricity are tiny.
Greg says he saves hundreds of pounds a week driving this car around London. While some of his friends have been so impressed by it they've gone and bought their own electric car, he can understand why some people are still reluctant to take the plunge.
We're driving around now, Regent's Park, and there's not one charging port here. You need planning to put a charging point in the street. You have to go to local authority and persuade them, and there is a real reluctance to do that. If you don't have a driveway in London and you live in a block of flats, or you don't have direct access to the street, then it's very, very difficult to have an electric car.
London's buses are starting to go electric, too. 68 new zero emission double deckers will join the fleet next year, to make a total of 240 electric buses. But that's a small share of the total fleet, which stands at around 9,000. And critics say the target for the whole fleet to go electric by 2037 isn't quick enough.
At the moment, the price of the vehicles is quite a lot higher than their equivalent diesel hybrid vehicles. But while electric is coming, zero emission is coming, we can do more across the world in terms of diesel, and we've done a lot in London in terms of diesel by moving to the Euro six ultra emission standard as quickly as we could. That reduces emissions from vehicles by about 95% for NOx, and around 80% for particulate matter as well, which makes a big difference compared to the previous generation.
And whilst diesel has to remain part of the solution in the short-term, we want to make diesel as clean as we can. We're now retrofitting the rest of the fleet, over 4,000 vehicles, to bring them up to that same standard.
London was a pioneer for mass transport systems in Victorian times. It's now a test bed for policy among global cities. Mayor Sadiq Khan is introducing an ultra low emission zone next year, which will slap a daily charge on the most polluting vehicles. With poor air quality largely derived by transport emissions said to be responsible for 9,000 premature deaths in the capital each year, pressure is building to quicken the transition to electric vehicles.