Buses May Soon Be Off-Limits on the Most Polluted Street in the World

London’s famous double-deckers might be banned on smoke-choked Oxford Street.

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Jun 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Taking the bus instead of driving is usually a smart way to do your part to reduce toxic vehicle emissions while helping your city reduce time-sucking traffic jams. But in one of the busiest shopping districts in the world, London’s Oxford Street, buses have long been identified as a significant part of the area’s air pollution problem. Now officials in the U.K. capital are considering kicking the iconic red double-deckers off the road.

Peter Hendy, commissioner of Transport for London, announced this week that the agency is considering removing buses from the bustling retail street. “For years we’ve been accused of being dog in the manger about buses on Oxford Street; now we are in a completely different place,” Hendy told the London Evening Standard. “We are looking at all the options, and we will countenance taking all the buses out. We wouldn’t rule anything out.”

It’s a move that is sure to cheer Oxford Street business owners, air quality advocates, and tourism promoters, who have long pressured officials to reduce the number of pollution-generating vehicles on the road. According to the Standard, an astounding 270 buses roll up and down Oxford Street every hour, shuttling some of London’s 8.62 million residents as well as millions of tourists (London was the world’s top tourism destination in 2014). The road is also a “street canyon”—the buildings that line Oxford Street rise high along the narrow thoroughfare, trapping toxic gases between them.

Last year researchers at King’s College London set up an air pollution monitoring station on the shopping strip. The scientists found a peak level of nitrogen dioxide of 463 micrograms per cubic meter coming out of diesel-fueled tailpipes and other sources—more than 10 times the European Union’s safe limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. That gave Oxford Street the dubious distinction of having the dirtiest air of any urban thoroughfare in the world. Although London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, initially disputed those findings, last fall he admitted that air pollution along Oxford Street was out of control.

So, Why Should You Care? Toxic particulate matter from vehicles is to blame for an estimated 60,000 deaths per year in Britain, according to the U.K.’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, and Londoners are disproportionately affected. But residents—or tourists heading to Selfridges or to Topshop’s flagship store on Oxford Street—aren’t the only ones being sickened by heart- and lung-disease-causing exhaust fumes. Worldwide, about 7 million people die every year thanks to poor air quality, according to the World Health Organization. It may also lower IQ in children and contribute to autism.

Various emissions-reducing solutions, such as encouraging Londoners to cycle to work using underground bike lanes, have been proposed to cut the city’s overall air pollution. Given that the EU Supreme Court ruled in April that the U.K. has to reduce emissions or pay hundreds of millions of pounds in crippling fines, it seems the government has no choice but to clean up its act.