Blog Post

Steering London’s Red Routes towards a green future

Centre for London’s Rob Whitehead and Environmental Defense Fund Europe’s Oliver Lord reflect on a recent panel discussion they spoke at alongside Araceli Camargo, Neuroscientist and Lab Lead, Centric Lab, Tiffany Lam, Consultant, NEF Consulting and Steve Gooding, Director, RAC Foundation. The webinar was sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund Europe.

Three decades ago, London created a network of roads to move traffic quickly across the city: the Red Routes. Managed by Transport for London the network accounts for five per cent of London’s roads but carries a third of all the city’s traffic. To some, they represent critical thoroughfares; for others, the Red Routes are the capital’s most dangerous and polluted roads, unfairly damaging the health of a substantial number of Londoners.

It looks like time for an overhaul of this important policy. But what should London’s future road network look like? And how do we shape policies that are equitable and deliver on health and environment goals without compromising the supply of goods and our transport options?

Stuck in the past

The Red Routes were introduced 30 years ago to prioritise through traffic over local journeys. This was well before more recent policy changes on diesel cars, the explosion of e-commerce, and the Paris Agreement. Since then vehicle use has been increasing – 3.9 billion more miles were driven on London’s roads in 2019 than in 2009.

In parallel, our understanding of how air pollution harms people’s health has since improved significantly. We now know that not only is diesel engine exhaust carcinogenic, but it is also a major source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particulates (PM2.5) that damage the lungs and heart.

The busy Red Routes are a major source of air pollution. On average, a Red Route has 57 per cent more NO2 and 35 per cent more PM2.5 pollution than other roads in London. These roads are likely to be among the last areas in the UK to meet air-quality health guidelines as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

There is a growing consensus that change is needed. “We need to take a step back and really think about the problem that we have. If we know air pollution and human health is the issue, we’ve got to do something different,” according to Steve Gooding, Director of the RAC Foundation.

Who is impacted

The discussion highlighted that although the Red Routes prioritise vehicle flow, many people still live and frequently walk along them – and are therefore more exposed to pollution and vulnerable to dangerous health impacts. This often affects some communities more than others – for example, research has shown that areas of London where people from Black, Asian, or minority ethnic backgrounds are most likely to suffer NO2 pollution levels that are 24-31 per cent higher than areas where white people are most likely to live.

It’s important to understand where the pollution and strain on the network are coming from. We need to “look at the Red Routes system holistically” to understand what puts the biggest burden on the streets urged Araceli Camargo, co-founder of Centric Lab. Construction and transporting goods – not people – might be the biggest burden.

Time for change

The pace of change on the Red Routes network has stalled too long. For example, plans to transform the dangerous and polluted one-way system at Vauxhall will not be complete until 2025 – a decade after an initial consultation.

Given what we know about the impact diesel car pollution has on health, why are policymakers not planning to remove diesel from Red Routes? Or could switching to electric cars and vans be the answer? Not according to Tiffany Lam from NEF Consulting – “replacing one vehicle for another will not address the underlying transport equity issues that exist.” Nor will they help with congestion or traffic-related injuries. Around 29 per cent of all collisions and 37 per cent of all road traffic fatalities occur on the Red Routes.

Panellists felt there should be more provisions for walking and cycling, with new routes joined up to a strengthened public-transport network. Plus there should be new options for Londoners who find using public transport difficult, such as those with young children or the elderly. Overall, we should look to shrink the Red Route network, especially in central London, by adopting smarter and more environmentally friendly ways of moving goods and services around the city. Cargo bikes could help – along with freight consolidation – for cutting commerce-related congestion and pollution.

How can we make change happen? Perhaps it’s time for a new Roads Task Force. Or we could kickstart local change by changing how we grade air pollution. “There are no safe levels,” according to Camargo. “We have to frame [all] air pollution as a hazard, like smoking or asbestos.”

Although Red Routes are specific to London, the discussion around undoing decades of damage from road building is not a localised issue. Cities around the world are waking up to the potential to use policies around air quality to deliver both health and climate benefits. And as forward-thinking cities such as Seoul, Paris, and Barcelona put plans for urban transformation into action, global calls for change only get louder. The next Mayor of London will need to decide if the capital becomes part of a global movement to protect health, tackle climate change, and transform busy urban roads – or if it stays stuck in the 1990s.

Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.

Oliver Lord is Head of Policy and Campaign at Environmental Defense Fund Europe.

The discussion paper Rethinking London’s Red Routes: From red to green accompanied the webinar. Published by Environmental Defense Fund Europe and Centric Lab, the paper presents a new health index that highlights the need to tackle air pollution from major roads.

Catch up on the event