‘York air pollution is a killer – it’s time for a clean up’

Traffic on Gillygate. Photograph © Google Street View
20 Mar 2018 @ 6.04 pm
| Environment, News, Opinion

Geoff Beacon says traffic pollution is costing us – and the planet – dear

I grew up in Kent some 30 miles from the great London Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 Londoners in less than a week and, eventually contributed to 100,000 deaths.

That fog of December 1952 was different – even in my bit of Kent, which overlooked open fields along the Thames Estuary. I remember worrying about the fog’s yellow tinge with a mixture of horror at reports of dying Londoners and relief that I didn’t actually live in London.  

Heating homes with coal fires led to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the air which turned into sulphuric acid droplets in the fog, burning lungs as people breathed.

A killer: the London smog of 1952

When we came to York in 1970, pollution from coal fires was still a problem – I clearly remember walking through the Groves and seeing sooty particles land on the bright yellow baby suit of our year-old daughter.  

However, the Clean Air Act UK was beginning to work – UK emissions of sulphur dioxide fell – by 2015 they had fallen by 96%.

The last problem I remember in York was the acidic smoke from the chimneys of Fishergate glassworks drifting down Heslington Road in the late 1970s.

With coal pollution receding, York’s air improved and so did the look of the inner city terraced houses. Since the 1970s they have gradually lightened in colour and their value has risen.  

Homes that 1948 Plan for York described as “worn out houses” costing a thousand or so pounds in 1970, now sell for over £200,000. That’s a 20 fold increase in real terms.

Now traffic pollution kills

It’s vehicle fumes that are the problem. Photograph © kuanish-sar on Pixabay

Now the air in the city has deteriorated again. This time it is from road traffic, polluting us with the oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter – small particles that can penetrate deep inside our lungs.

NOx pollution comes mostly from diesel vehicles because they operate at higher temperatures. The cheating on NOx measurements has given diesel vehicles a bad name and sales are slumping.

In 2012, the City of York’s Low Emissions Strategy estimated that between 94 and 163 people die prematurely each year in York from traffic pollution. In addition, Public Health England have estimated that there are 82 premature deaths a year in York from particulate  pollution alone.

All vehicles cause this type of pollution – not just from  exhaust pipes but also from brake and tyre wear. This means electric vehicles are polluting too. They are also heavier so have more tyre wear and can cause as much pollution as petrol cars.

Traffic pollution also kills the oceans

Surprisingly, tyre wear has wider implications than the rubber and plastic particulates that lodge in our lungs. It is a source of the plastic pollution of the oceans. The International Union for Conservation of Nature say:

The tiny plastic particles washed off products such as synthetic clothes and car tyres could contribute up to 30% of the ‘plastic soup’ polluting the world’s oceans and – in many developed countries – are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than plastic waste.

Drive your car and pollute the oceans with plastic.

Fresh air in the floods

The 2015 floods on Walmgate. Photograph: Geoff Beacon

In 2015, I was lucky enough to have a flat on the first floor so the flood on Walmgate didn’t affect me much. I still feel guilty about enjoying the peace and quiet outside with the murmur of the crowds coming to look at the action as the army Search & Rescue team came to rescue those below me that were flooded out.

There was also a wonderful smell of fresh air because the traffic had stopped, rare on that part of Walmgate. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed fresh air, despite continually wiping traffic muck from the window sills.  

Actually much of this pollution came from the large diesel buses going to the university which park in Merchantgate with engines running – sometimes at odd hours of the night.

Do York council’s pollution measurements miss anything?

The pollution measuring equipment on Gillygate. Photograph: Geoff Beacon

It’s good news that York council is measuring pollution with measuring devices round the city but I’m a bit concerned by some of their positions.   

For example, the sophisticated measurement station in Gillygate is positioned above and slightly back from a high wall, well above head height.

It is also on the side of the road where traffic flows out from the city centre.  On the other side of the road the traffic starts and stops while waiting at traffic lights.

The pollution there will be significantly worse – especially if it is measured at head height.

The “Merchantgate”  measurement device, called a diffusion tube, is actually on Piccadilly outside Tescos, well above head height.

It is nowhere near the stop where the diesel buses to the University pump out the pollution that soiled my window sills. It’s also well away from the main bus stops of Piccadilly, where other big diesel buses stop and pollute.

Update: York Bus Forum 20th March 2018

On Tuesday I managed to get to a meeting of the York Bus Forum for the first time. There was a presentation on York’s Proposed Clean Air Zone and Implications for Bus Services by Mike Southcombe and Andrew Bradley from York Council.

They gave good informative presentations and both were serious about the issues.

I hope members of the forum will forgive me for concentrating on the issues that I raised – but below there is more room for more comments – and any corrections. Here is what I learnt from the meeting. It is not documentation:

1. Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs)

AQMAs are put in place to protect resident’s health when certain air quality targets have been breached. Two AQMAs were mentioned at the meeting: Fulford Road and Salisbury Terrace. Recently the AQMA in Salisbury Terrace has been retired due to improvements in air quality.

2. AQMAs are specifically for residents

I was surprised to hear that AQMAs were specific to the health of the residents of an AQMA, which means that they are not relevant to other street users such as pedestrians or cyclists. This may account for the location of measurement devices above head height, which is sufficient for assessing the likely penetration of pollution into houses.

3. Who cares about pedestrians, joggers and cyclists?

Is the health of pedestrians, joggers and cyclists of little concern to those dealing with air quality in York?

My impression was that Mike Southcombe and Andrew Bradley both cared about the problem but York had to follow national laws and guidelines. Making air breathable to passing strangers is not a problem that local authorities must tackle.

4. Bus pollution

Buses are 33% of the pollution in York but only 3% of the traffic. Good progress was reported in making buses in York less pollution. The council was introducing more electric buses. With some bus services, there was a problem with costs. Some bus services might disappear if requirements were made too stringent.

5. No shame

I asked about using posters to shame motorists for driving into York as about 100 people a year die from traffic pollution, eg posters on Bootham and Gillygate. I didn’t get an enthusiastic response.

The surprise to me from this interesting meeting was that pollution measurements were made in order to protect residents and not other street users. Recently there has been a study in the Lancet warning about walking in polluted areas. They finish

Policies should aim to control ambient levels of air pollution along busy streets in view of these negative health effects.

They studied people walking in London’s Oxford Street. Next they should study the effects on children being walked to school along Fishergate or babies being pushed in buggies along Gillygate.

It might be useful to measure the level of pollution at child and buggy level.