London: A notable feature of London’s virus lockdown has been day after day of clear blue skies. Now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked some Britons to return to work, the city’s mayor is trying to keep it that way.
Sadiq Khan said Friday he’ll seek to raise green taxes and promote car-free transportation in a bid to prevent polluting vehicles taking over the city as commuters return to their jobs. Unclean air can create heath risks that could increase the severity of the disease, which may put even greater demands on the National Health Service.
It’s a signal that environmental concerns aren’t going to be shunted to the side as London figures out how to adapt to Covid-19.
“If we want to make transport in London safe, and keep London globally competitive, then we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people,” Khan said in the statement. “By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another.”
This week, Johnson said people should return to their places of work if they can’t do their jobs from home, and to avoid public transport where they could. That’s presented a dilemma in London where buses and trains are the most popular method of commuting, and cars, vans and trucks are deterred with regulations and charges.
Khan has proposed raising the Congestion Charge, a tax drivers pay to enter some central parts of the city, to 15 pounds ($18) from 11.5 pounds. That would be the first increase in six years and the most since it was introduced in 2003. Certain discounts offered to residents and regular users will be eliminated, and it will be extended to include weekend travel.
He’s also proposing to turn large swathes of central London into temporary car-free zones to encourage people to walk and cycle.
Transport for London, the city’s transit operator, has widened sidewalks and introduced new cycle lanes, including one underway on Park Lane, a busy stretch that passes high-value real estate and luxury hotels. The Mayor’s Office said some of the temporary car-free zones could become permanent.
Other European cities have also taken steps to encourage alternatives to motor vehicles. The French ecology ministry asked a group that promotes the use of bikes to help local officials coordinate the creation of temporary cycling paths. In Berlin, authorities have already added several miles of pop-up lanes to encourage social distancing. Milan plans to open up more streets for cycling and walking.
Khan has previously struggled to take bolder measures to curb air pollution and traffic. In 2018 he was forced to ditch his flagship policy to pedestrianize Oxford Street after a row with Westminster City Council, which controls the streets in that area of the capital.
The new measures are also a product of financial necessity. TfL normally gets half of its funding from ticket sales. Now, only 13% to 15% of the normal numbers of passengers can be carried on buses and trains to allow for the required social distancing, according to the statement.
This raises the urgency for TfL to boost revenue where it can. The authority has received a 1.1 billion-pound grant from the government to help it cope with the severe drop in passenger numbers. That, and a 505 million-pound loan, come with conditions such as a requirement to get services back to 100% as soon as possible. – Bloomberg