Covid-19 has helped clear London’s air

The big question is: Can we keep it that way?

The question is: How do we keep it that way?

So, we are slowly and cautiously emerging from the fullest of full lockdowns? Has that improved the mood of the nation? Not especially, is my reading of the tea leaves. It’s been a tough few weeks/months for everyone. This website had fallen silent because there has been little or no good news or events to report and I didn’t want to increase everyone’s gloom (very much including my own) by sticking a lot of coronavirus content in. That said, I am guilty of doing it here!

If you want your fill of the pandemic, tune in to the BBC News. It’s full of it … as, indeed, is that corporation. I was delighted the other day when the VE Day celebrations knocked Covid-19 off the top spot as the opening news item. The brief respite was very welcome. I look forward to the day when coronavirus is the last item on the news, if it merits a mention at all. Sadly, that day still seems a long way off. In future posts I will try to let the good outweigh the bad. For example, coming soon we will feature why it may be a good idea to live in a road/street/close that has a “happy” name.

But, back to the coronavirus. Yes, sorry! I realise it may be too early to be doing this, but I’m wondering what good (and mostly bad) will emerge from this all.

Dependent on your point of view, my next comment may be viewed as both good and bad. Given my line of work, I am sorry to note that several magazine titles either have, or are about to, disappear from the shelves of WH Smiths. Sales have been hit, advertising is way down and many are moving online – perhaps never to return in an ink-on-paper form. If I was running a contract printing company, I would be very worried about the future.

In a previous post I have commented on the plight of commercial property as fewer companies, I believe, will want big offices in the future. Many companies have been dragged, kicking and screaming into allowing home working and finding it can actually work. Who would want to go back to working in the office five days a week? Not me and, whisper it quietly, maybe not the bosses who decide these matters. The savings to be had by downsizing your office space must be attractive.

Not a lot happening outside Buck House

If more people work from home what does that spell for the future of transport? As more companies find they can hold perfectly productive meetings online via Skype and similar will we see a rapid decline in business travel? And what will that mean for airlines? Will the debate over Heathrow’s third runway be kicked into the long grass? Virgin’s decision to pull out of Gatwick has gone down like a lead balloon. Given that flying was already under fire for its air pollution record before Covid-19 it might be quite some time before the airlines take off again (excuse weak pun).

What of other forms of public transport? Buses, trams*, trains, tubes, taxis … I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few. Transport for London (TfL) is losing money hand over fist, maybe £600 million a month and mayor Sadiq Khan has warned that if reserves run too low, TfL may not be able to pay staff. Perversely, before Covid-19 struck, TfL had been regarded by many cities around the country as the UK leaders in transport innovation. That’s looking a bit sick now. Don’t misunderstand me, TfL does many things well. But, with little money coming into the coffers, its ability to ‘lead’ must be in some doubt.

Since the lockdown started – and fewer cars have taken to the road – the air has been a lot cleaner. A lot! And I’m sure most Londoners would like to see it stay that way. Clean air campaigners want us all in electric cars and fewer cars at that. They are keen to see us use public transport, such as buses, more. They must have been tearing their hair out when good old ex-London mayor Boris advised us to travel to work by car and, where possible, avoid public transport. Must have set back campaigners months if not years.

And it’s a similar story in Trafalgar Square at the other end of The Mall

Do I delight in this? No. Who in their right mind would want to breathe polluted air? But, by the same token, it would be wrong to pretend I am a lover of public transport. Regular readers of this site will be aware that bus travel is a not a favourite of mine and I have previously set out a case with semi-seriousness for people to stop making banal and privacy-busting phone calls on the Tube.

As a result of this lockdown, will car sales post-coronavirus rise steeply on the back of Boris’s advice or continue to fall as more of us want electric cars, but maybe cannot afford the ones we like the look of. In terms of up-front costs, they ain’t cheap to buy but they are a lot cheaper to run compared with petrol guzzlers. They also have fewer parts to go wrong, so servicing them should be easier on the pocket. Much depends on whether you are a jam today (cheap purchase price) or jam tomorrow (big cost savings over the life of the car) type. I have heard one enthusiastic car salesman muse that perhaps our difficulties in taking a holiday this summer might result in more of us treating ourselves to a change of car instead. He might have something there. By the way, I do not hold shares in any car maker or dealership. Indeed, I don’t even own one (a car that is) currently.

Some commentators are saying that if we really want to revolutionise the way we travel (for a future where the air is cleaner), then Covid-19 may provide the best of reset buttons. Like the enthusiastic car salesman, they might have something there. And that, I think, is potentially one of the best legacies of the coronavirus.

In the meantime, get on yer bike or take a walk if you really don’t want to experience the return of the bad air days.

*Unlike on the Continent, not many places in England have a tram network – seven, I believe. TfL operates one in the Croydon and north-west Kent area for those who never venture south of the Thames. Will we see more in future? Don’t hold your breath.

I wanted to lift spirits with a song about London. There are many, but I chose Waterloo Sunset which contains the line “people so busy, make me feel dizzy”. I wonder when it will be appropriate to sing that again. There’s a bit of pseudo guff at the start, but get past that and there’s a nice version by Ray Davies with the backing of a choir.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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