This post was triggered, as are many posts, by a Twitter exchange. This started because the City of London Twitter account announced
We've teamed up with #taxis
to help #Londoners
avoid air pollution bit.ly/1E7lxJZ
They were promoting an app where you can "choose from the user groups below to receive advice tailored for you on polluted days". So the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association was advising us on us how we can attempt to avoid the pollution that they are in large part responsible for. Great. A bit like Henry VIII advising his wives to steer clear of men with axes.
In reply to this, Schrödinger's Cat tweeted
Is that advice simply "Leave London"? @CleanAirLondon @TheLTDA
Now the story gets more curious, because Clean Air London
is a respected pressure group campaigning for air pollution to be cleaned up in London. They replied
to my re-tweet of Schrödinger's tweet,@VoleOSpeed
You can reduce exposure without leaving London. @HealthyAirUK
videoThey linked to this video, from Healthy Air
, another anti-pollution campaign:
This over-long video presents essentially two contentious ideas. The first is that those cycling and walking receive less pollution than those in cars. This is contentious because, although the concentrations of some pollutants have been measured to be higher in cars than around the heads of those walking and cycling on the same roads, it does not take into account the rate of absorption due to exercise and respiration, nor the time spent exposed to the pollution. Now, there's nothing wrong with advising people to cycle or walk (except that such advice is likely to be ineffective until the environment is changed to make that behaviour easier), but let's not advance scientifically-shaky arguments for it.
The second contentious idea is that those walking and cycling can reduce their pollution exposure by chosing 'quieter routes'. This is problematic in many ways. For one thing, there's nothing in general to stop motorists from very sensibly heeding the same advice, and chosing the quieter routes to drive on themselves, so making those routes anything but quiet and tending to level-up air pollution everywhere (a process that the sat-nav devices are expediting). For another, the advice is impractical, whether we talk about walkers or cyclists. They need to go to where the things are that they need to get to, which tend to be on main roads. Also, the main roads usually are the direct, shorter routes, the socially safer ones, and the easiest routes to find and navigate without spending a lot of time in research.
An actual example: yesterday, I nededed to wheel my partner, who is in a wheelchair, from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London WC1, to King's Cross Station. We had decided to create less pollution by walking and taking the tube than by taking a cab. We could have walked between those points on a slightly quieter and ldess polluted route than the one I chose, which was via Russell square, Tavistock Place and Euston Road, some of the most polluted roads in London, but in fact we needed to go via shopping streets as we needed also a bank, and we desired an eating-place as well. She, being low down in the chair, would have received the worst of the pollution.
In general if you try to navigate in any town avoiding the main roads, you soon find that you are taking much longer routes, you are taking complex, time-consuming detours (which might lead to you even absorbing more pollution as you are in lower levels for longer), you are probably going up and down more hills (which also may lead to more absorbtion), as main routes tend to be the flattest ones in hilly areas, and you require more planning to take in the facilities you actually need to get to.
The truth is that everybody has a limited amount of time. Main roads are the main roads because they go through. Minor roads don't, you get lots of kinks in your route trying to use them, or you find yourself trying to navigate obscure paths, through housing estates or other obstructions, and in places where the space is tight and infrastrucrture poor. Many back streets have narrow pavements in a bad state of repair or with strange gradients or changes of surface, or are full of street furniture obstructions that make them impossible to get a wheelchair along. I have tried to use, for example, Stephenson Way NW1, as an alternative to a section of Euston Road, and found it is quite impossible with a wheelchair, for these reasons. You can only have a reasonable level of confidence that you are going to encounter reasonable, pedestrain and disabled-friendly infrastructure, with good junctions, pedestrian signals, smooth surfaces, proper dropped kerbs, and enough space, by sticking to big roads, where the pollution is.
But what I really object to is not being told all this nonsense about 'quiet routes' in itself. I can put up with it if I am told it by institutionally hypocritical governmental organisations, or people who are part of the problem, like the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association. What I really object to is being told it by organisations that claim to be there to campaign for better conditions: for actual solutions to the problem of pollution.
Because, I don't understand why they are doing this. It's like they are undermining their own work. They are causing a distraction from the big, real social problem, that they are supposedly there to address, and its real, collective, structural, permanent solutions, by towing, or in any way supporting or publicising, this 'personal solution' line. It's just very convenient for the organisations on the 'other side', like the chronically conservative, anti-democratic mediaeval excrescence that is the Corporation of the City of London, or the polluters themselves, the taxis, that campaigners collaborate with this kind of thing.
It's parallel to the cycling case where, for so long, cycle campaigners have got wrapped up in the idea, and the systems, of trying to train people to cycle in motor-dominated conditions, as a personal solution to the big social problem, that, basically, cycling can't flourish unless it is given workable motor traffic-free space. This is a similar distraction, playing along with the 'solution' advocated by those who want to keep the environmental, infrastructural status quo. It absorbs so much energy that should be spent campaigning for the actual change in conditions that is needed.
In another area in which I am interested, the quality of the night sky and the issue of light pollution
, it is like campaigners for darker skies telling people they should get dark skies by driving to dark places (producing more pollution on the way, of course), rather than by getting better, more appropriate lighting solutions in their communities, in the places, and at the times, at which they are genuinely required, and not elsewhere.
It's also like rape justice campaigners saying a part of the solution is for women to be more careful and not get drunk, or put themselves in risky situations ,or wear the 'wrong' clothes.
I am irritated by these people promoting personal solutions to social problems because they are wasting time and energy on these things, they are letting 'the authorities' and those otherwise in powerful positions 'off the hook', and in general, they are giving out patronising, unhelpful, poorly-thought-through advice to boot.
It's not a practical solution to try to avoid air pollution by cycling or walking on quiet routes. It's not a route to mass cycling to try to train everyone to ride on roads full of motor vehicles. It's not a solution to light pollution to tell anybody who wants to see the stars to drive to a place many miles away. It's not a solution to rape to advise women to avoid risky situations – which will – hey! lead to them avoiding quiet streets, which is where they are supposed to go to avoid the pollution
, and not cycle, which seems to be regarded as an act of sexual provocation by many men, and avoid the places where they might be able to silently contemplate the stars.
For these personal 'solutions' to social problems just lead to a mass of patronising, contradictory advice and nonsense. They are not short-term solutions to 'tide us over' until the policies can be sorted out, they are part of the problem themselves; they form a part of the environment of ideas in which the real solutions are just put off. My take-home message: if something is wrong, campaign for the policies to fix it. Don't tell individuals to change their behaviour. Don't even start.