Lane closure scrapped after high pollution readings double

Finchley Road lane closure in Camden

A Covid-inspired lane closure on Finchley Road, is set to be scrapped. The announcement came days after Camden Council confirmed incidents of high air pollution on the road had doubled so far this year. - Credit: Polly Hancock

A lane closure on Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, will be scrapped after months of complaints, Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed.

The news came as Camden Council confirmed high levels of pollution were detected on the road had doubled, year on year.

But the authority said pollution levels were still significantly better than in 2019.

The Ham&High began investigating pollution around Finchley Road after residents claimed lane closures had gridlocked residential streets.

Families in Greencroft Gardens said they could not open their windows because the fumes were so strong and they feared letting their children play outside.

Road changes

When lockdown started to ease last year, TfL closed one lane of Finchley Road to enable pedestrians to socially distance. This week TfL has said this will be reversed.

Commuters had branded the scheme "barmy", saying the resulting traffic meant it sometimes took an hour to drive less than a mile.

TfL lane closure in Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, Camden

TfL closed one lane of Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, last year to create extra space for pedestrians to socially distance. - Credit: Polly Hancock

In September, TfL also announced the road was being included in a trial scheme which would see its bus lane closed permanently to all other vehicles, leaving just one lane open to traffic. This has not yet been reversed.

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Ward councillor Shiva Tiwari said it had “turned large swathes of Finchley Road into a smoggy and virtually permanent traffic jam."

Rosemary Coleman, of Greencroft Gardens, said the "ludicrous" changes were causing gridlock on surrounding residential streets.

"Even indoors, I can smell the fumes," she said.

Councillor Oliver Cooper said the scrapping of the pedestrian lane is a "huge relief", branding the scheme a "madcap experiment".

Finchley Road lane closures

Since autumn, one lane of Finchley Road has been closed for pedestrians and another reserved for buses, leaving only one lane for traffic. - Credit: Oliver Cooper

The data

Camden Council said pollution had fallen across the borough by a quarter in 2020, with reductions in both Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and particle pollution.

But in Finchley Road, it has started to creep back up this year.

Between January and April, NO2 concentrations exceeded 100 microgrammes per cubic metre of air 52 times.

In the same period last year, it only happened 25 times.

Dr Jo Davis, of Greencroft Gardens, said she did not feel last year’s low figures could be attributed to Covid-19 restrictions.

Last year’s lockdown began on March 23, she said, whereas: “From January this year, we were in a lockdown. My kids were not in school until March 8, and even then, only the schools went back. So that should have made it better this year, not worse.”

Dr Jo Davis, Greencroft Gardens NW6 27.04.21.

Dr Jo Davis said the fumes on Greencroft Gardens were so bad she could not open her windows. - Credit: Polly Hancock

Residents fear the Finchley Road changes are to blame, as stationary cars emit more pollution than when moving.

Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said the amount of pollution being given off by cars could be even higher than the figures suggested.

“It’s all so misleading because the weather has been quite unpleasant,” he said.

“What we have had in the last couple of months is incredibly windy weather, bringing in clean air off of the Atlantic, Arctic air, or air from over the North Sea. High winds disperse pollution quite quickly.”

Simon Birkett from Clean Air in London

Simon Birkett, of Clean Air in London, said this year's unusually windy weather may have affected pollution readings, making levels appear lower than they really were. - Credit: Clean Air in London

Legal vs Safe

Camden Council said that although NO2 levels were higher this year than last, they were much better than between January and April 2019, when levels topped 100 microgrammes 119 times.

It added that pollution was generally worse during winter, due to people heating their homes, and that this winter had been colder than the last.

It said the increase in pollution this year was “likely to be due to a number of factors, including both building emissions and road traffic”, with traffic now having “almost returned to pre-Covid levels”.

Finchley Road was within the annual average legal limits for NO2 and particulate pollution last year.

But, said Mr Birkett: “Scientists have found no safe level of exposure. Any exposure to dirty air is going to have some effect on you.”

Traffic on Greencroft Gardens NW6 27.04.21.

A Ham&High photographer attended Greencroft Gardens on the afternoon of April 27 and found traffic backed up as far as the eye could see. - Credit: Polly Hancock

“I would prefer to have a reading for my road,” said Dr Davis. “If you could measure the difference in Greencroft Gardens between this year and last year, it would be completely shocking. Last year we didn’t have a problem. Now the cars just sit there, in stationary traffic, and pump the stuff out.

“It’s not about what the legal limits are. That doesn’t affect whether or not I have to close my windows. It’s about lived experience.”

Camden Council said its Clean Air Action Plan would “help to improve Finchley Road and surrounding areas”, and that it would “continue to work closely with TfL” to monitor impacts of the restrictions on the road network.

Carl Eddleston, TfL’s head of asset operations, said: “Ensuring that everybody is able to travel safely during the coronavirus pandemic is vital and we’ve been clear throughout that temporary walking and cycling schemes will be reviewed regularly to ensure they are supporting journeys as intended.   

“We will be removing extra pavement space barriers on Finchley Road in the coming weeks after carefully considering how they are being used by people in the area.

"Other schemes will remain in place and under regular review, in line with the changing coronavirus situation.”

For more, read:

Road changes have filled streets with toxic gas, say residents

Cancel 'barmy' TfL lane closure in Finchley Road, say commuters

Revealed: The five most polluted places in Camden