Air Pollution in London

‘Smog City’ – Photo by Matt Brown from

Dear Readers, after my wonderful walk in Walthamstow Wetlands yesterday, it was something of a surprise to read that Friday 14th January is predicted to have the highest air pollution in London since March 2018. Londoners are being advised to avoid physical activity, and those with respiratory problems such as asthma are being advised to carry extra inhalers. The pollution is likely to hit Band 10, the highest level on the scale, in Central London.

Part of the reason for the pollution being so high is, ironically, because of the high pressure that is bringing all the lovely sunshine. This area of high pressure is sitting over Western Europe, and because there is practically no wind, the pollution doesn’t get dissipated in the way that it would normally. However, this doesn’t answer the question of why the pollution is so high in the first place.

In London, the main cause of air pollution is road vehicles. Although the Congestion Zone and the Ultra Low Emissions Zones will go some way towards reducing the amount of Nitrogen Oxides (NOX) and particulates, the Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed out earlier this week that car usage in the Capital is back to pre-pandemic levels. London’s roads simply can’t take the volume of traffic, and one estimate puts the cost of the congestion at £5.1 billion per year. Plus, cars moving slowly allow the pollutants to build up in an area. As usual, there is considerable inequality amongst the groups that are most exposed to this pollution, with the poorer inhabitants of London being the ones who suffer the most, as they tend to live closer to main roads. Young children and elderly people are often the most vulnerable, and as many schools are close to busy roads this exacerbates the problem.

Furthermore, I suspect that people who would normally be amenable to cycling or walking in the Capital are less likely to do so if it feels dangerous and polluted. In addition, Transport for London (TfL)has to go cap-in-hand to Central Government every year to get funding, and during the pandemic more and more people abandoned the tube and the buses, and jumped in their cars instead because they felt safer, reducing TfL’s income still further. It’s a tricky situation for sure, and one that requires imagination and creativity to solve.

A study by Imperial College London found that 4,000 Londoners die every year as a result of air pollution. Worldwide, the state of the air that we breathe is a health emergency, but of course the pollution also contributes to climate change. To my mind, the main things that need to change are:

  • People need to be encouraged to use public transport, with safe, clean, frequent, sustainable  and convenient services.
  • Public transport needs to be accessible for those with mobility issues and those with children in prams.
  • There need to be more ways to walk and cycle safely in the Capital
  • We need to protect and enhance our green spaces as they act as a buffer against the worst effects of pollution
  • We need to encourage the uptake of electric cars, and make sure that there is sufficient infrastructure to charge them.
  • We need to look at more car-sharing schemes, both formal and informal, to reduce the number of individual journeys that people make. There are too many vehicles on the road with just one person in them.

It is true that air quality in London has improved greatly since I was young: I remember ‘pea-soupers’ in the 1960s, largely caused by the burning of wood and coal as fuel – ‘smokeless zones’ were set up in the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. What seems strangest to me, looking back, is that when ‘smog’ was expected, all the schoolchildren were sent home from school, which meant crossing busy roads in dense fog. I’m sure there was some kind of logic behind the action, but it struck me as peculiar even as a little girl. These days, the air looks clean and sparkling for most of the time, but sadly it’s still killing people. I reckon that with a bit of encouragement we can do better.

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (Photo by N.T.Stobbs)

For more scenes of foggy old London, do have a look at Spitalfields Life for some wonderful examples.


7 thoughts on “Air Pollution in London

  1. Amanda Scott

    I just about remember those 1960s pea-soupers, too! More recently, a few years ago I worked in central London in a tall building, and remember one morning, having walked from the station on what seemed like a clear sunny day, looking down from the office window and seeing the brown polluted air lying in a head-height layer next to the ground (presumably a high atmospheric pressure day). It was completely invisible when you were in it. Horrid!

  2. Claire

    Same pollution here in the Paris area . Here also,the changes you recommend are in the air, most towns are trying to do something. I approve of it, except when they suppress bus lanes to build cycle lanes…

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Although your changes would help, I can’t help thinking they will not make a significant improvement in the short or even medium term. People tend to be stuck in their ways and something more radical is needed – like banning non-electric cars from the centre of London. And by ‘centre’ I mean an ever widening radius. More people would then cycle or walk or use the Underground for example. I would be very interested to see how much traffic was reduced during the pandemic and the effect it had on the air quality. In theory it should have plummeted while people were staying at home – unless your name is Boris of course!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yep, I know. With more people from working from home in the Capital (still) you’d think that the car journeys would have reduced, but no.


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