Bristol City Council is aiming for the fastest improvement in air quality to meet legal nitrogen dioxide (NO2) targets in a bold plan with more aggressive measures than those used in London. In what would be a landmark ruling, Bristol could be the first UK city to ban all diesel private passenger cars.

cyclists on the road

The council’s proposals also recommend a charging Clean Air Zone (CAZ) for non-compliant commercial vehicles and if the government approves the plans and changes the law to put a diesel car ban in place, both reforms could come into effect March 2021.

Up in the air

Bristol City Council (who have received £1.65million from the government to fund how they would tackle the city’s air pollution) have spent £1million and missed two earlier deadlines resulting in the government threatening legal action and granting an extension while ordering them to produce a plan.

Earlier in the year, the council proposed two ways to get NO2 levels down to the European Union target. Their first option proposed a ban on all diesel vehicles from the city centre between the hours of 7 am and 3 pm, while the second was to introduce a clean air charging zone akin to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London only for commercial vehicles, with fees of up to £100 a day.

The council left the plans open for the public vote, over six weeks throughout the summer, with the most popular of the two options to go to the Bristol City Council’s Cabinet. They received over 5,000 responses with 3,414 respondents saying they thought a CAZ would be a good way to improve air quality and 66% of people were ‘very concerned’ about the health impacts of air pollution.

In many parts of the city, air pollutants exceed legal and safe European and World Health Organisation limits and need reducing as a matter of urgency to lessen the impact on health, but the council forecast they wouldn’t meet legal limits until 2028 and so are proposing a third, hybrid plan, which combines both options and which they’ve estimated will hit the city’s NO2 legal target by 2025.

A modest proposal?

Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, acknowledging the proposals were ambitious, feels they prove the council’s dedication to tackling air quality so they meet legal limits within the shortest time, without ‘disproportionally affecting citizens on lower incomes’ which he says will happen with a ‘blanket approach’ to charging vehicles.

‘Protecting the most vulnerable people from pollution is central to these plans, and we have ensured that all impacts have been carefully considered.

‘If approved, mitigation measures will support those most affected, especially those living in the most deprived communities’, said the mayor.

Nicholas Lyes, Head of Roads Policy for the RAC, says that while the motoring organisation recognises that Bristol must improve the city’s pollution, the impact of the proposals on diesel owners would be ‘unprecedented’.

‘Major routes into, out of, and even around the city—like Temple Way and Brunel Way—would become out of bounds, with diesel vehicles forced onto other roads, which risks causing congestion problems where they don’t exist at the moment.

‘Bristol has bold plans to improve its public transport system, but major improvements like its mooted rapid transit system or even more park and ride sites are still many years from becoming a reality,’ he added.

Mr Lyes said that many motorists must use their cars for journeys because of a lack of economical and reliable alternatives and that not everybody can afford the penalty of an early exit from their car finance packages.

The council also propose a scrappage scheme, but Mr Lyes said it could be very expensive for owners of older cars to switch to something different and that the RAC worries the scrappage scheme wouldn’t get drivers into cleaner cars because they’re too expensive.

Mixed feelings

Bristol is my closest city. It was my place of work (and partying) for eight wonderful years and I almost moved there. This story is therefore close to my heart, and I wanted to see what the locals had to say on the matter.

Responses from residents online are mixed. Somebody wrote that the latest diesel cars are cleaner than petrol engines and so the council’s plans are ‘complete overkill and wrong’. Another claimed most people rely on their cars because public transport isn’t affordable or reliable and clean cars cost more than most can afford.

Others are happy with the proposals, congratulating Bristol and telling them to ‘ban all cars, get the lazy gits on the buses.’

Somebody else claimed he had reduced his asthma treatment by half and no longer needed to remove ‘black sludge’ from his windscreen each day after moving from Hotwells to Lawrence Weston and the impact on health from poor air quality is something we can’t dispute.

According to a King’s College London and UK100 report, higher pollution days in the city cause four more cardiac arrests and an additional 18 hospital admissions for asthma or strokes amongst children and adults. We know air pollution can cause permanent lung damage in babies and young children and the worsening of lung and heart disease in older people. In fact, it leads to about 300 premature deaths for Bristol residents each year.

Council data shows that 40% of Bristol’s NO2 pollution comes from diesel cars, while diesel buses and coaches produce 23%, and 22% of emissions come from diesel vans. While the mayor is under a legal obligation to produce a clean air plan to protect the people of Bristol, we have to ask—will the proposals just move air pollution to the outer suburbs? And what about the impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged in the city?

One thing on which I think we can agree is that we need the government to change our transport system to one that fulfils the present and future needs of both our society and our planet, or in common parlance, one that is ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’.

The Outline Business Case (OBC) went to a cabinet meeting yesterday (Tuesday 5th November). If approved, the proposals go to the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) before a final plan submission to government next year. The deadline for implementation is March 2021.

What do you think of Bristol City council’s proposals? How could the council improve upon their plans? Will the proposed ban affect you? Tell us in the comments.

Cycling Bristol” by Tejvan Pettinger is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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