To aid social distancing—and cut air pollution—London’s mayor declares stretches of the capital will be car-free

To aid social distancing—and cut air pollution—London’s mayor declares stretches of the capital will be car-free

Traveling through central London—a bustling amalgamation of finance, tourism, culture and shopping, all threaded with winding, often narrow medieval streets—is about to get a lot, well, slower.

As the British capital inches towards reopening from seven weeks of lockdown, London’s mayor announced on Friday that large stretches of the city would become effectively car-free—making space for citizens to walk, and cycle, instead.

“COVID-19 will fundamentally change the way we travel around our city,” mayor Sadiq Khan said in a Twitter post on Friday. The plan will make “central London one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world, increasing walking and cycling and improving our air quality,” he said.

On Friday, the city’s transport authority—Transport for London—said that alongside limits to cars, public transit in large stretches of the city must be used only “as a last resort,” with workers in the city center told to travel by foot or bicycle to their final destination after arriving in the city from major rail lines. The bus and tube will still be operational in central London. The new rules will start to go into effect on Monday, leaving London’s workforce little time to plan.

Some streets will be limited to pedestrian and cycle traffic only, while other major thoroughfares—including, potentially, London Bridge—will allow only buses. That bridge is a key route from south London to the “City,” the capital’s main financial hub—a compact warren of streets that is host to half a million workers per day.

On Sunday, British leader Boris Johnson said in a national address that those who must go back to work should avoid public transit if possible, and use cars, bikes, or walk instead.

It was quickly pointed out that in a sprawling city of nearly 9 million, which is also the major hub for all of southeast England, walking, and even cycling, all the way to work is an option for the privileged few. Workers who can are still being advised to work from home.

Meanwhile, low car ownership in the capital means traveling by auto is also not an option for most, while congestion and lack of parking space—see: narrow medieval streets, above—has often made traveling by car through central London difficult even under normal circumstances.

To address the risk of London streets becoming “unusably busy” as a result, Khan has gone for the jugular: remove most cars, entirely. Levies on vehicles in central areas of the city will be reinstated—many were dropped during lockdown—while some delivery trucks will be required to make drop offs on off-hours, the announcement said. Sorry Amazon Prime customers.

On Friday, Khan said that he appreciated that the new plan would be “incredibly difficult for many Londoners,” saying, “it will mean a fundamental reimagining how we live our lives in this city.”

But he said that the redesign offered a chance to “repurpose” the city’s streets for the people, and address toxic air pollution levels to “to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another.”

That’s not just a post-lockdown move—it’s a chance to push forward Khan’s years-long agenda of dramatically lowering London’s air pollution levels, which have frequently exceeded the legal limits on what is safe. And it’s likely that he’s capitalizing on one of the few silver linings of a spring spent in lockdown: within days of the country going into quarantine, pollution levels across the city dropped dramatically, and Londoners reported noticeably cleaner air and bluer skies.

Potential links between high levels of air pollution and vulnerability to COVID-19 have also pushed policymakers towards addressing how air pollution affects health systems longterm.

London is not the first city to use the pandemic to make bold urban changes—many expected to be permanent. Milan has also announced a scheme to dramatically reduce car use as the city reopens, through the rapid expansion of dedicated lanes and cycling routes.

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