Car Free Day isn’t enough – we need to get cars off our roads for good

We're putting our children in danger, argues Scott Ainslie, Green MEP

Car Free Day 2019

No parent would ever intentionally poison their child. From the day you find out the news that you’re becoming a parent until the day they fly the nest, you try to minimise the risk of harm for your little ones.

Today, the idea of smoking as you take your kids to school is a social taboo. Yet so many of us still think nothing of choking the streets around schools with exhaust fumes, idling outside the gates while we pump toxic gas directly into the lungs of our children and their friends.

Following Car Free Day on 22 September, we now need a walking and cycling revolution in our communities, and it should start around our schools.

The dangers of air pollution in the UK are now well known. We’re aware that 40,000 lives are cut short each year because of air pollution, with particular danger being presented to the youngest in society whose developing organs are disproportionately impacted by the toxicity of air pollution.

The airways of children are small, and their prams and buggies sit at the level of exhaust pipes. All this can lead to asthma, lifelong respiratory problems and even increased risk of cancer.

These problems even affect the unborn. We already knew that polluted air is linked to increased miscarriages and low birth weight.

However, this week we discovered that air pollution particles have been observed on the foetal side of placentas, which indicates that even unborn babies are directly exposed to the black carbon being pumped out of our diesel and petrol-fuelled vehicles.

These health impacts can affect a person for life, and they begin before they have even been born.

A “mammoth public health crisis”

Clearly, this is a mammoth public health crisis and our children are bearing the brunt, with more than 2.000 schools in the UK exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.

Happily, thanks to incredible campaigning work from groups like Mums For Lungs, more and more schools are taking action and closing their surrounding streets at drop off and pick up times – when traffic would normally hit its smoggy peak. 

This month, Colville Primary School in Notting Hill began a six week trial of closing its road when its 465 pupils would normally be dropped off and picked up. So far, it seems to be a success.

Some schools even turn their closed streets into play streets – an opportunity not just to breathe cleaner air, but to actually spend more time enjoying the journey to and from school, in streets which are safe and fun to play in.

This is where the health benefits marry up with social wins. Rather than having more and more new roads creating a belching artery of traffic, we can wrest back control from cars and reclaim our streets.

Imagine actually enjoying walking your kids to school, rather than spending your morning stressed and suffocating in a stationary metal box.

It’s great to see schools taking this action. But what we need is transformative change in public policy.

Our Mayor in London has announced a £1m fund for schools to plant green barriers of hedges around some of the most polluted schools in London, helping to block toxicity and clean the air.

This is a fine idea as far as it goes – but it is merely a sticking plaster on the problems of ever increasing traffic, road building, and simply getting diesel and petrol cars off our roads.

While Khan plants hedges, existing plans to pedestrianise iconic streets of London – including Oxford Street – have been shelved.

“What we really need is Car Free London”

Last weekend’s Car Free Day was one of the most ambitious we’ve ever seen in the capital, with a huge range of Play Streets created for central London.

The problem is that it was restricted to a single day, and will have soon regressed into illegal levels of toxicity after the press cameras packed up.

Car Free Day is a great initiative, and I’m happy to support it. But what we really need to see is a Car Free London, with walking and cycling initiatives built into the core of urban planning.

Across Europe, we see more visionary solutions. In Barcelona, studies have found that car-free ‘superblocks’ could prevent nearly 700 deaths a year and add more than 200 days of life expectancy to the average citizen, with space formerly taken by cars being handed back to people.

They’ve trialled it in six places, and a report calls for it to be introduced in over 500 locations.

Madrid has made nearly 500 hectares of the city off limits to general traffic. Pedestrian only zones introduced since the 1960s mean that more than half of people in Copenhagen cycle to work. 

Downtown Oslo is now more or less car free, after the city replaced parking spaces with bike lanes, parks and benches, and banned cars on certain streets. This is the standard we need to be speeding towards, but in the UK we’re still stuck in traffic.

Car Free Day is nice, and the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone is a positive step, but when responding to a public health emergency which is literally choking our children, we simply have no choice but to get cars off the road.

Scott Ainslie is the Green MEP for London and a member of the European Parliament’s Transport & Tourism Committee.

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3 Responses to “Car Free Day isn’t enough – we need to get cars off our roads for good”

  1. Jan Chapman

    London is adequately supplied with public transport and Londoners have no need to own a car. The same cannot be said for other parts of the country. We need investment in public transport in rural areas.
    Would dearly like to ditch my car, but that would mean ditching my social life too.
    Last bus home is at 6.15pm.

  2. Gary

    On one hand this is a great idea. But, if like me you have arthritic hips and can barely walk the length of yourself maybe not so much.

    Petrol or diesel powered vehicles are being phased out, alongside that we should be subsidising electric trams, buses and trains. We should expand the train network. Remember that Beeching made a decision to shut branch lines in order to favour road transport. This would require massive spending, compulsory purchases and yes, the continuation of HS2! HS2 could replace many internal UK flights. No more time travelling to/from an out of town airport, checking in and picking up luggage, no, straight to the train and then a convenient bus to your exact location. Combined train & bus terminus? Trams on hand too, electric taxis? Yes, there’s ALREADY electric transport on our roads, taxis and trams in Blackpool are fully electric, why not elsewhere?

    On the subject of Blackpool, forgive me as I digress a little, the closure a few years back of their much used airport caused me, but apparently no one else, to raise an eyebrow. The SAME COMPANY* which was bidding to build a new runway at Heathrow bought Blackpool Airport and closed it down, thus leaving the runway taken out of commission as a ‘spare’ that could be built elsewhere without exceeding the limits imposed by the authorities.

    NB it wasn’t the “same company” it was a ‘fully owned subsidiary’ of the company – which keeps it legal. In my eyes, and most others too I’d imagine, this is a con. People in the north of England lost an airport so that people in the south east can be bombarded with YET MORE sound and fuel pollution!

  3. phil newton

    Im trying to get this noticed as something ahead of its time –
    07444 31 30 11
    My late elder sister Marian wrote “Streets were made for Playing “by Marian Roach [nee Newton ]-b1931 -2019
    around 1980 of her Lawrence rd childhood between 1931 -1939.
    I wonder if it might be of interest today since hearing of your ventures and perhaps a document of things to
    come concerning community and climate /environment. ,
    It takes place before the motor car [except my Dads motorcycle combination then.]
    arrived in the less affluent areas
    of Liverpool.
    Its a quite detailed compelling and incisive account, sourced from childhood memories kept fresh with humor seen
    through an[ only] child`s eyes observing family relations holidays in Formby Hilbrie New Brighton . Being and only child up to evacuation and my birth.Her stories are of school Family Christmas My Dads job at the Gas Co ,My Mothers Market jobs and the characters there, The Worlds Fair at the Mystery, The Abdication, She develops the childhood scenario about life with its ups and downs and effect on her local street community playmates .
    290 pp Unpublished but well bound by her family in Stoke who have perhaps 10 copies -Unpaginated.
    I ve shown extract s of the 23 chapters to surviving pupils of her primary school class and sparked some interest –
    It ends with a Hoylake holiday chapter with her dad in Aug 1939 just as I was born and before she was evacuated closing with a serious soliloquy during the build up to war; The
    undercurrent to her style -fitting with her character as my big sister -to come. As she had been a teacher and nurse the character studies of family members neighbors and shopkeepers from 40 yrs earlier and the analysis of some of the reasons how they came
    to be are quaint and witty.Was she writing keeping a balance of childhood with the present ]child combined with adult?] Im not interested in any financial gain; no more than the writes intentions were but I do know she wrote more since the 1980s of similar nature that `s with her children/grandchildren and my younger sister .
    Yours
    Phil Newton 24 st johns rd huyton L360UU
    07444 31 30 11

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