The ending of the UK’s first “zero-emissions street” scheme has led to a return to illegal pollution levels beside one of the country’s biggest cultural centres.
Pollution levels had plummeted on Beech Street in London, which runs past the Barbican centre, after the City of London Corporation introduced an experimental traffic order restricting it to electric vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.
But in September last year the City ended the order, welcoming diesel and petrol vans, cars and cabs back into the street. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, which damages the respiratory tracts of people and animals and causes lung disease, are once 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 an average of 40µg/m3 over the course of a year. The latest World Health Organization guidance suggests a limit of 10µg/m3.
“Dirty air is back on show at the Barbican,” said Oliver Lord, the UK head of the Clean Cities Campaign, who commissioned the analysis of the air quality on Beech Street by Imperial College London. “Reopening Beech Street to polluting diesel vehicles has led to higher levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide, with the street at risk of breaching legal limits once again.
“The City’s commitment for a zero-emission zone at the Barbican must be brought forward as soon as possible otherwise it is at risk of negligence by giving cleaner air and then taking it away.”
Beech Street, a road tunnel passing beneath a section of the Barbican estate in the City of London, from which fumes cannot disperse easily, had for years been a notorious pollution hotspot. Before the scheme, the average air concentration of NO2 was 58µg/m3 .
“Beech Street experiences high levels of air pollution as it is a busy, thoroughfare enclosed,” the City had said as it launched the zero-emissions scheme in March 2020. “A significant improvement in air quality is expected, resulting in health benefits for the many pedestrians and cyclists that use the street.”
Levels of NO2 fell 67%, to 19.5µg/m3, even without any enforcement beyond signs and markings. However, this was at the same time as the first coronavirus and a general fall in traffic.
After lockdown restrictions were eased and life began to return to the city streets, and enforcement measures implemented, there was a slight increase in NO2 levels, to an average of 24.7µg/m3.
Louise Mittal, of the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College London and a co-author of the report, said: “We found that there was a drop in NO2 concentrations when the zero-emissions street was in place. It went down more than other sites in London, then it went back up again when the street was removed. Basically we saw an improvement when the scheme was in place,” she said.
Overall, only about 930 vehicles a day used Beech Street during the scheme, compared with 9,500 before restrictions began. About 34,000 penalty tickets were issued to motorists caught driving through the road in petrol or diesel vehicles.
The City of London has said it ended the Beech Street scheme because the 18-month time limit for its experimental traffic order had expired. Last December, members of the corporation voted to launch a public consultation to make the Beech Street scheme permanent.