People or cars?

“All I need is the air that I breathe…” sang the Hollies nearly 50 years ago.  It’s not literally all you need, but clean air is a UN-backed fundamental human right. 

If you’re very young or very old, or have a condition like asthma, microscopic particles of burnt fuel or brake dust can put you in hospital.  Hundreds of Tynesiders die prematurely every year from air pollution. 

Yet the Government ignored this for a decade.  In 2011, environment charity Client Earth took them to court for breaking their own laws, and won.  But rather than take action, the Government dragged it out in the courts.  Client Earth won again, twice.  So in 2018 the Government decided to impose clean air zones across some of Britain’s pollution hotspots, in Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Greater Manchester, Portsmouth, Sheffield, and Tyneside. 

The Clean Air Zone comes into effect on Monday, 30th January.  It covers much of Newcastle city centre, and parts of Gateshead approaching the Tyne bridges.  It won’t affect private cars, but will affect older taxis, buses, and lorries, and from July, vans.  Most newer vehicles are already exempt because they’re less polluting.  There’s full information online at the council websites, and 

By the way, please don’t email me – the North of Tyne is not involved.  Our local councils administer it, and deserve full credit for the huge amount of work to minimise the financial impact to our residents and businesses.  Owners of older vehicles can apply for grants to upgrade their vehicles.   And if you hear someone say it’s just a money maker for the councils, it’s not true.  They’re legally required to use all the money for running the scheme or transport improvements. 

No one wants to be stuck in a traffic jam, breathing toxic air.  But clean air is only part of the challenge.  CO2 still accelerates climate change.  Cars are expensive to own and run.  Even electric vehicles use huge amounts of resources to build, and the electricity has to come from somewhere. 

Add in the cost of owning and running a car, and it’s in everyone’s interest to get more cars off the road, including motorists.  But we’ll get better results by using a carrot than a stick. 

But where is the carrot today?

Government has persistently failed to invest in high quality public transport outside of London.  Transport spending per person in London was £882 in 2020 – more than double the North East’s funding.  It’s hardly surprising London’s public transport system is better used.  In 2021 76% of workers in the North East travelled to work by car.  In London, it’s 27%.

It’s not just about money, it’s also about who decides how it’s spent. 

We don’t currently have transport powers in the North of Tyne, because 40% of the Metro stations are in the South of Tyne area.  But when the new North East devolution deal comes into effect in May 2024, on an expanded geographical footprint, it will be a game-changer.  It includes £732 million in devolved transport funding over the next five years. 

We’ll get powers to introduce bus franchising and decide routes, timetables and fares.  Introduce integrated ticketing so passengers can switch easily between bus, Metro and the new Northumberland Line we’re opening between Ashington and Newcastle.  We’ll be able to build new Metro routes, connecting places like Washington to the rail system.   Imagine a public transport system that’s safe, reliable and affordable.  That runs in the evening.  That turns up on time.  Where women and older people feel safe travelling at night.    

We’ll be able to make cycling and walking more attractive and help us to get to net zero.  And invest in secure bike parking – crime is a major reason people don’t cycle.  Fewer than 10% of adults here cycle once a week.  The number of children who walk to school in the North East has dropped by a quarter since 2009 – it’s now just 2 in 5 kids.  Both of those numbers are far too low, with long term health consequences.

So yes – we need clean air to breathe. But we’ll do it best by redesigning our transport system around people, not cars.

Photo courtesy of Sustrans. ©2019, Sustrans, Chris Foster, all rights reserved.