London should embrace digital technology to clean up its dirty air

By Laurie Laybourn-Langton

The mayor of London’s plan to introduce the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by April 2019 is a very important step in reducing London’s lethal and illegal air pollution. This air pollution is attributable to over 9,400 early deaths per year; the negative health effects it causes fall particularly hard on children and low income communities. The greatest source of this pollution is road transport and, especially, the diesel engine.

It is going to be a long journey to clean London’s dirty air: modelling IPPR commissioned from King’s College London has shown that the air pollution problem is highly entrenched. This is because of how much Londoners rely on polluting vehicles to get around and do business. We are going to need less and more efficient journeys, as well as cleaner vehicles.

Getting there will come at quite a cost. This will be felt by drivers, as the cost of using more polluting vehicles increases, and by London’s government, as it builds the infrastructure needed to make the transition to a less polluted city.

Of course, the mayor cannot actually ban polluting vehicles and, even if he could, an overnight solution is neither politically nor economically feasible. So we would do well to remember that the ULEZ is a cost we must all share in order to make the city cleaner and stop Londoners from getting ill.

But we also need help in bearing this cost. This can come in two ways:

1. Support from central government.

Air pollution is a national problem that needs a national solution, including, and especially, a national diesel scrappage scheme that helps people out of dirty vehicles.

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2. Through London embracing new ways of getting around the city that have been opened up by digital technology.

The potential of these technologies is extraordinary, as we argue in a recent report. New modes of travel enabled by digital technology, including Uber and car clubs, like DriveNow and Zipcar, are increasingly disrupting London’s transport.

This disruption is already leading to positive effects, as is the case with car clubs, for example, which lower car use and ownership and are much cleaner than the average private car. This disruption could also have negative effects, as is feared with Uber – but, crucially, it is through a network in which these technologies interact with one another that they could have a transformative effect.

Recent studies by the International Transport Forum show that a network of shared transport could reduce the number of vehicles in a city down to 3 per cent of current numbers. This would be revolutionary: imagine a traffic jam of one hundred cars being reduced down to just three.

And less vehicles means less roads which means that the city could be re-planned. Parks could be expanded, cycle lanes made safe. Air pollution, congestion and carbon emissions would be reduced to low levels, leading to enormous health and economic benefits. And the cost of travelling would fall, with the high costs of owning and servicing a vehicle disappearing for many people.

Crucially, such a “win-win” situation relies on the mayor turning London into a leader in the adoption of new transport technology. Indeed, if he doesn’t, a future of negative network effects is made more likely – one in which cheap private hire vehicles clog up the streets, crowding out bus use and raising air pollution, and large multinational tech firms increasingly take control.

Indeed, innovative transport firms are already leaving these shores, which damages London’s ability to adopt these new technologies – a dangerous outcome as Britain and London chart a new course outside of Europe.

London is at risk from missing this extraordinary opportunity. In response, we recommend that the mayor incorporate a vision and framework for new transport technologies into the upcoming Mayor’s Transport Strategy. This should be a vision in which shared transport and digital technology are able to realise their potential in driving positive transport outcomes.

If the mayor delivers on that vision, then London will cement its global leadership. For now, London is at a crossroads; the mayor must act.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a senior research fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.

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