People in Smog-Choked London Are Ready to Boot Cars off Roads

Terrible traffic and toxic air pollution are taking a toll on residents.

(Photo: Paul Mansfield/Getty Images)

Oct 22, 2015· 2 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.

Los Angeles has taken the plunge—and so have several other smog-plagued cities, including New Delhi, Paris, Copenhagen, and Madrid. Now it seems a majority of residents of London—a metropolis where a chicken running at a top speed of nine miles per hour might move through the city center faster than an idling vehicle—are ready to begin kicking cars off the road too.

That’s the sentiment expressed in the results of a new survey from marketing research firm YouGov UK. The company polled 1,258 residents of the British capital and found that 63 percent of respondents would support a one-off ban of cars—and support for ditching cars on a more regular basis doesn’t trail too far behind. A full 58 percent of respondents indicated they’d back a consistent once-a-month ban.

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The survey didn’t ask respondents what was driving their support of a ban on vehicles. However, running chickens aside, people in London spend more than 100 hours a year stuck in traffic jams—and that’s despite a “congestion charge” that’s been in place since 2003.

Thanks to that fee, driving a vehicle into the city center during business hours costs about $17.70 a pop. According to Transport for London, 80,000 fewer cars each day enter the area, but those that are still creeping along spew plenty of toxic emissions. In July, a sobering study released by researchers at King’s College London found that every year 9,500 Londoners die from long-term exposure to air pollution. Worldwide, about 7 million people die from the effects of inhaling the fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide coming out of vehicle tailpipes, according to the World Health Organization.

(Graph: Courtesy

That study was released on the heels of research that showed that the shopping mecca Oxford Street was the most polluted road in the world, in part owing to the diesel emissions from those legendary double-decker buses.

The YouGov UK survey found that people are less enthusiastic about banning cars across the entire city. Only 46 percent of respondents were in favor of a one-off vehicle-free day that would apply throughout the capital, and just 43 percent supported a monthly car-free day. But even limited bans can make a significant difference in air quality.

On the last Sunday of September, when Paris prohibited privately owned vehicles from being driven in the heart of the city, the effect was measurably cleaner air for all the pedestrians and cyclists who took over the streets. Airparif, a French organization that monitors air quality, found that nitrogen dioxide levels were up to 40 percent lower when compared with the average Sunday.

During a one-off CicLAvia event in October 2014 that nixed cars on streets in downtown Los Angeles, researchers also found that particulate pollution levels were half what they’d be on a typical vehicle-congested day.

If Londoners really want to take the car-free plunge, they could always follow the example of Oslo, Norway. On Monday government officials there announced that vehicles will be banned in the city center starting in 2019.