Friday, 4 August 2017

Laughing Gas*

The Government released it's plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations last week and rather than critically appraising its content, the media predictable leapt on one tiny aspect and made it the whole story.

What could possibly have got such massive interest? The disconnect between the biggest road building plan since the 1970s and the impact on public health? No. 

The fact that the plan is trying to dump the problem on the very local authorities who have had their funding decimated since 2010 while having more responsibilities increased? A bit closer, but still no.

What the media concentrated on was two words in the entire 103 page document. On page 34 to be precise - "road humps";

Improving road layouts and junctions to optimise traffic flow, for example by considering removal of road humps

The comment is within a section on "Clean Air Zones" which are things which a local authority can put in place (or be made to put in place). It's a specific action which can be taken (in terms of establishing a clean air zone) and is designed to make the quickest impact on NO2 levels. the zones can either use a charging regime (similar to that of the London Low Emission Zone from what I can see) or a non-charging regime; and this is where road humps come in (or not as the case may be).

What causes air pollution. Let me think.
The full text of examples of measures for a non-charging zone is as follows;

107. The Framework provides a range of non-charging measures which local authorities can use, for example:

a. Exploring innovative retrofitting technologies and new fuels;

b. Buying ULEVs and encouraging local transport operators to do the same;

c. Encouraging private uptake of ULEVs via ensuring adequate chargepoints;

d. Encouraging use of public transport, cycling, walking, park and ride schemes, car clubs and car sharing;

e. Improving road layouts and junctions to optimise traffic flow, for example by considering removal of road humps; and

f. Working with local businesses and neighbouring authorities to ensure a
consistent approach.

The framework referred to is the one used to set up a Clean Air Zone which is a specific thing for a specific place with high levels of NO2. Let's be honest, this list of actions is so wishy-washy as to be meaningless.

"Innovative retro-fitting technologies and new fuels" - what does that even mean? Unless there is some amazing new fuel-source just waiting to be discovered - it's all just words. Improving road layouts is just short-hand for adding motor-traffic capacity. The non-charging clean air zone approach is just a continuation of the failed idea that technology and encouragement will save us. In fact, it's a blueprint of doing anything other than tackling the car-addicted UK.

Where are the high NO2 levels?
Traffic-calmed estates or main roads?
I digress. In the day job, requests for traffic calming (including road humps) is standard post-bag fare. I have a love-hate relationship with them as they are not the answer to residential streets plagued with speeding drivers, but they have their place. I still think they are useful as "speed tables" at junctions and frankly, sometimes sticking lumps of tarmac in the way is he only language some drivers understand. Of course, I'm more interested in filtered side streets and decent walking and cycling protection on main roads (which allows tight traffic lanes and road geometry to reduce speeds). Population-level interventions rather than encouraging (and subsidising) someone to buy a new car.

I prefer modal filtering to road humps,
but they still have a place.
The problem is people have also read the news headlines and I've had a few enquiries this week saying that the Government is to order the removal of humps because they are proven to "cause" pollution - says so in the Daily Sun Expressgraph. People simply cannot comprehend that "they" are the cause of the pollution, especially those short local journeys which don't even get their car engines warmed up to proper running temperature.

There is a place for technology of course. The car is with us for the foreseeable future and cleaner energy sources (from generation to use) can make a difference. We also need cleaner buses, lorries and public service vehicles. But as someone cleverer than me said "we need fewer cars, not newer cars".

As for the rest of the Air Quality Action Plan, well, it's pushing quite a few things and reannouncing quite a few too;

£1 billion – ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs). This includes investing nearly £100m in the UK’s charging infrastructure and funding the Plug In Car and Plug In Van Grant Schemes.

£290 million – National Productivity Investment Fund. In the Autumn Statement 2016, a further £290 million was committed for reducing transport emissions which includes £60 million for new buses and £40 million for bus retrofits, £50 million for a Plug In Taxi programme and £80 million for ULEV charging infrastructure.

£11 million – Air Quality Grant. We have awarded over £11 million under our Air Quality Grant scheme to help local authorities improve air quality.

£89 million – Green Bus Fund. The UK government has invested a total of almost £89 million via the Green Bus Fund to help bus companies and local authorities in England to put over 1,200 new low carbon buses on the roads.

£27 million – Clean Bus Technology Fund and Clean Vehicle Technology Fund. Since 2013, government has awarded over £27 million to retrofit almost 3,000 of the oldest vehicles (mainly buses) including through the Clean Bus Technology Fund and the Clean Vehicle Technology Fund.

£1.2 billion – Cycling and walking. In April 2017, the UK government published its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy which identifies £1.2 billion which may be invested in cycling and walking from 2016-2021.

£100 million – National road network. Through the Road Investment Strategy, the UK government has allocated a ring-fenced £100 million for an Air Quality Fund available through to 2021 for Highways England to help improve air quality on its network.

The other thing that runs through the plan is that as NO2 is a local issue, it is up to local authorities to take the lead. Presumably this is because people will giving their local council the kicking rather than the Government when they either try and be radical, but upset the locals; or they fail and upset the locals. It's all weak and woolly as usual, but at least they are going to deal with those awful road humps.

*Yeah, I'm not a chemist as you might have guessed.


  1. You do have to wonder how the often quoted "speed humps increase pollution" got so much traction when their design is so thoroughly detailed and well known. The spacing is typically set to prevent acceleration beyond the speed limit because other controls weren't effective in limiting drivers speeds, so we end up with two extreme approaches to the speed bumps along the road:
    1) Accelerate and brake as hard as possible to maximise speed through the control devices.
    2) Drive at a steady speed which is comfortable through the devices constantly.
    And most drivers will be somewhere between those two. But in these low speed environments fuel consumption (ergo pollution) is minimised if all drivers drive smoothly at the speed limit, so if we remove speed bumps what will be the alternative control method to limit drivers speeds? Perhaps all speed bumps should be removed and each set of them replaced with a speed camera? Lets see how popular that approach is with the public.

  2. I'm all for giving the drivers what they are asking for. Remove the speed bumps but, as meltdblog says, an alternative has to be put in place because the bumps were put in place as drivers could not be trusted to drive appropriately. So absolutely replace them all with safety cameras. There is no pollution generated by a safety camera so absolutely nothing for drivers to complain about.