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Is the era of the car over in Greenwich?

by Fiona Moore

Anyone who walked or cycled past a queue of idling vehicles in the scorching sun of Monday or Tuesday this week will have felt the extra heat they generate – even beyond that thrown up by tarmac.  

The heatwave brought home again how urgent it is that we cut carbon emissions and pollution in Greenwich.  That means making walking, cycling and public transport highly attractive options, while reducing incentives to drive.  Greenwich Council’s carbon neutral plan aims to reduce car miles driven by 45% by 2030 (from 2015 levels), and vans and lorries by 10%.  This is good, and ambitious, and fits with London-wide plans.  Also with social justice: the lower Londoners’ income, the less likely they are to own a car. And it’s deprived communities, especially communities of colour, who suffer the worst air pollution.

How to achieve the targets?  We’d rather not start from here: car ownership increased 9% in Greenwich in the decade pre-pandemic, and the number of miles driven in the borough went up around 125 million (yes, million). Silvertown Tunnel threatens to double cross-river traffic, worst of all adding big HGVs (which Blackwall Tunnel can’t take).  The bitter fight over the West Greenwich LTN shows how even modest changes can get scorched off the map by a few aggressive voices and political rivalry.  And we belong to a networked city, subject to decisions by Transport for London (TfL), whims of national policy and desire lines carved by out-of-borough drivers following satnav shortcuts.

It comes down to clear priorities, and the political will to implement them.  A 2018 study by Kings College London and others showed that the lungs of children exposed to air pollution in Greenwich and some neighbouring boroughs averaged 5% smaller than normal, leaving them vulnerable to life-long health problems.  Multiple studies worldwide show we’re in a climate emergency.  What do we care more about as a society, drivers’ convenience or the survival chances of our children?  

There’s plenty we can do.  Below are some ideas from Greenwich Greens.  We will take them to the Council.  Boroughs such as Hackey are leading the way, not to mention cities such as Paris; change is achievable, if the will is there.

1.  A massive shift in attitudes.  Driving petrol and diesel vehicles needs to be equated with smoking, so that it becomes aspirational to use clean transport, promoting clean air and cutting carbon emissions, rather than to buy a car.  The Council must lead in borough-wide education, working with schools, hospitals, businesses and community, environmental and transport groups.  This will only succeed if we implement a range of practical measures.  

2.  Road pricing.  TfL’s financial crisis is at last forcing it to look at city-wide road pricing.  Greenwich could bid for some of the potential income for local transport improvements, including much of this list.

3.  Climate safe and child safe streets across the borough: with traffic calming and reduction, road closures e.g. around schools, street planting and community spaces.  Working with communities, especially schools and parents.  To be planned borough-wide.  Those who need to drive, e.g. the elderly or disabled or tradespeople who can’t use cargo bikes, should be able to get around more easily.

4.  No bus cuts.  Public transport must be fiercely defended.  Exploit the Elizabeth Line: work with TfL and neighbouring boroughs to maximise bus links to Abbey Wood and Woolwich, to make it easier for people to get the Liz Line than drive from Kent and Outer London through Greenwich on their way into town.  

5.  Bike hire schemes – for electric bikes, cargo bikes and push-bikes – there’s huge pent-up demand.  Promote with interviews with people who use them.  Promote cargo bike deliveries with business incentives.

6.  Invest in cycling infrastructure.  More borough-wide segregated cycle lanes.  Wider pavements – for bike lanes, not parking. Cycle storage for blocks of flats to meet pent-up demand.  More bike racks in public areas, e.g. for shoppers and at transport hubs e.g. the Liz Line stations.

7.  Lobby strongly to stop the Silvertown Tunnel; and/or lobby for its change of use to public transport and all kinds of bikes.  At the moment there’s nowhere for cargo bikes to cross the river, and other cyclists depend on the foot tunnel lifts which rarely work.  

8.  A firm No to new lorry depot plans – for the Council’s planning committee.  Silvertown Tunnel is spawning these and they would fill our streets with HGVs. It’s bad enough already…

Blackwall Lane junction with Trafalgar Road this week. Photo by Laura Jane Sessions

9.  Enforce rules for vehicles that park illegally on yellow lines and cycle lanes.  (Income stream for carbon reduction measures.)  Local businesses and big companies (e.g. Amazon which is trialling e-cargo bikes in Hackney) need to get savvy.  So does the Council with joined-up thinking on the link between parking, last mile delivery and traffic reduction.   

10.  Parking fees.  Charge drivers more to park eg at Falconwood station and other hotspots where people drive in from outer boroughs.  Incentivise reporting of illegal parking.  Higher parking fees for car owners, especially SUVs, to reflect environmental impact – currently there’s no financial incentive to give up / not buy a car.  Ban concreting/tarmacing of front gardens (heat, flood and biodiversity risks; encourages more car purchases).  

11.  When air pollution is over WHO levels, the Council alongside the London Mayor needs to have an emergency plan to reduce vehicle use.   

12.  Lobby TfL for fair fares.  Greenwich residents not near the DLR or North Greenwich tube rely on national rail, paying “double fares” relative to those in better connected parts of London. 

13.  Extend the DLR to Thamesmead and Eltham. 

14.  Electric vehicles are not the solution!  Their tyres and exhaust emit particulates highly damaging to health.  Manufacture is carbon heavy and uses rare minerals often mined by workers in developing countries who face appalling labour conditions.  

15.  Plant more street trees.  They slow traffic down; they filter air pollution, reduce heat drastically and contribute to communities’ well-being.  More trees in public spaces, such as Lambarde Square and Cutty Sark, to green and cool them.  More mini-parks and trees for council estates that don’t have them, working with residents.  Biodiversity and greening of the borough is a big issue we will come back to.  

Fiona Moore, Greenwich & Bexley Green Party

Image credit Harry Farnhill Bain