Pollutionwatch: time to rethink London’s red routes

It is 30 years since the designation of London’s red routes, the 320-mile network that carries a third of the city’s traffic mainly through residential areas and alongside many schools. They include the South Circular, past the family home of Ella Kissi Deborah, whose air-pollution-induced asthma led to her death in 2013.

According to Oliver Lord, a policy lead at the Environmental Defense Fund, it is time to “review, rebuild and repurpose the red routes, with bold traffic-reduction targets and new approaches for freight”.

The network includes some of the UK’s most polluted roads that are likely to be among the last to meet legal limits. Many of these, especially those in inner and outer suburbs, experienced a worsening in traffic pollution between 2005 and 2016.

Major roads create noise and air pollution. Although some city centres will be restricting the most polluting vehicles from their central areas, less is being done in the suburbs. Walk into the city centres of Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham and you encounter major roads that act like moats severing communities.

A 1994 Department for Transport report on new trunk roads concluded they led to increased traffic, rather than improving congestion. Examples included London’s elevated Westway, which required the demolition of thousands of homes but failed to reduce the traffic below. Now 50 years old, the UK’s longest elevated road requires significant repairs.

In the US, freeways were cut through poor black and minority ethnic communities in the 1950s and 60s. But new federal funding could open opportunities to redress this by removing rather than rebuilding the ageing infrastructure. Freeway removal began in the US in Portland in 1974 with the deconstruction of Harbour Drive to create a riverside park. Other cities have followed.

The decision to reroute instead of rebuild the earthquake-damaged Cypress Freeway in West Oakland, California, eased the air pollution burden experienced by local communities and opened new areas for housing and the creation of parks.

Other examples include the unbuilding of part of the Inner Loop in Rochester, New York, the removal of a 12-lane motorway in Utrecht, the Netherlands, to restore the canal that once surrounded the city centre, and the Cheonggyecheon River project in Seoul, South Korea; where a multi-lane expressway was removed to reveal a buried river, creating a green-transport corridor and a place to picnic and relax. These schemes could provide a blueprint for our major urban roads.

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