Cities need to clear the decks to fight air pollution, says Saskia Murphy

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The air where I live is often thick with smog. At rush hour it’s hard to catch your breath on the main roads as cars sit at traffic lights, pumping out fumes as commuters make their daily exit out of Manchester.

Like many cities across the country, Manchester has a problem with air pollution. Last June a report found that toxic air is having a devastating impact on public health, with central Manchester reporting the highest rate of emergency hospital admissions for asthma in England.

It’s a similar story in a number of cities across the north. Earlier this year environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth said parts of Neville Street, near Leeds train station, had a nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level of 99ug/m3, making it the most polluted street outside London, and in May last year the
World Health Organisation named Liverpool as one of the most polluted cities in the UK.

To be fair to them, councils are acting. From January 2020 drivers of taxis, heavy polluting lorries, coaches and private hire vehicles will be charged for entering parts of Leeds, and in Manchester a “clean air plan” is in development, with proposals including a clean air zone alongside major government funding to clean up the region’s most polluting vehicles.

In Liverpool, mayor Joe Anderson has spoken about banning certain diesel vehicles from travelling into the city, and wants walking, cycling, electric vehicles and clean fuels to be the preferred modes of transport by 2025.

Like most people, air pollution scares me. But it doesn’t stop me using my car when I could easily just hop on the bus. Why? Because buses are a rip-off.

If I want to make a one-off journey from south Manchester to north Manchester and back, it involves taking two buses each way under two different providers. Therefore the £4.80 day ticket I buy for a Stagecoach bus from south Manchester to the city centre is not valid on the First bus I’d need to get on from the city centre to north Manchester. Two day tickets from each provider come in at £9.60. That’s almost £10 to spend more than two hours sitting on buses, when a car journey is less than half an hour each way.

If I’m travelling into the city centre with more than one person, I’m ashamed to admit the bus is never an option, because it works out cheaper to get a taxi.

Londoners don’t face this moral conflict. In the capital, which was spared from Thatcher’s deregulation of the bus industry in the 1980s, it’s a £1.50 flat fee for a single journey, and the service is far more efficient.

Last week the mayor of Berlin announced plans to introduce a €365 a year ticket to encourage the use of public transport, meaning Berliners could travel for just €1 a day. The scheme started in Vienna and has since been trialled in Bonn and the south-west German city of Reutlingen. I’d love to see northern leaders taking heed and trying something similar – I’d be the first in the queue.

If councils are serious about cleaning up the quality of our air, they have to face up to the fact that at the moment public transport, with its fragmented services, long queues and outrageous fares, simply isn’t worth it.

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