#spaceforcycling on my high street – call for suggestions

My local high street will receive major improvements next year with an injection of £600,000 from Transport for London. This presents a great opportunity for much needed improvements to both the carriageways and footways. The question is, how can space for cycling be accommodated?

The context is rather complicated. The map below shows the location of the street, Dartmouth Road, in Forest Hill, south-east London. Access to Forest Hill is limited. Dartmouth Road is an important route south from the A205 towards Sydenham – there are few alterative routes nearby with Sydenham Hill Woods to the west and the East London Railway to the east. Its importance is recognised by the fact that Dartmouth Road is an A-road, although it remains a local authority road and does not form part of the strategic Transport for London Road Network. It has three bus routes and a pretty large volume of traffic – almost 18,000 motor vehicles per day according to the Department for Transport.

Dartmouth Road and surrounding area
Dartmouth Road and surrounding area

The image below shows a view along Dartmouth Road illustrating the limited space available. Further north, towards the background of the image, space is even more constrained.

View north along Dartmouth Road, on a quiet day

View north along Dartmouth Road, on a quiet day

However, as well as functioning as an important thoroughfare, Dartmouth Road forms part of Forest Hill town centre. It is home to numerous shops, restaurants, cafés and bars, and also important civic facilities such as the local library, swimming pool and a primary school. After a period in decline, Dartmouth Road and the wider town centre have experienced a resurgence in recent years. This success has brought with it some problems though. There are issues with illegal parking, parking and loading on pavements (which cause problems for the flow of road traffic and people on foot) and the general amenity issues that come with a heavily trafficked route, such as noise and pollution. For all road users, the success of the planned improvements will depend on resolving these issues.

As yet, no details are available regarding what Transport for London and Lewisham Council are planning for the road improvements. I think it can be safely assumed that nothing will be done to reduce traffic volumes. My wish list would therefore focus on providing improved and clearer parking and loading facilities to avoid causing problems for traffic flow and pedestrians; initiatives to benefit pedestrians such as more and better crossings and priority at side streets; a 20mph limit and removing the ineffective traffic calming; and providing good surfaces for both the carriageway and pavements.

What I am unsure of is where mass cycling can be accommodated in this context. (Of course it actually needs to be considered on a broader scale, but let’s put that aside for a moment.) Allocating some space for cycle parking would be an easy thing to do and would offer clear benefits to local businesses. But what about providing safe space for people to cycle there in the first place? Are there case studies from other cities and countries that could be applied? Or is it the case that this route should be abandoned to motor traffic and an alternative sought for cycling? If you have any ideas I would love to hear from you.

Why is it acceptable that air pollution kills thousands each year in the UK?

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 ...

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 Original description: Nelson’s Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December 1952, a combination of cold weather, high atmospheric pressure and windless conditions collected airborne pollutants to form a thick layer of smog over London.  Over the four days that the smog lasted, thousands died prematurely and tens of thousands were hospitalised for respiratory illness.  Action was needed and in 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed, the first comprehensive attempt to control smoke emissions from homes and industry in the UK.

Fast forward 60 years, and where are we?  Well, thousands die prematurely and tens of thousands are hospitalised each year as a result of air pollution in London.  Don’t be mistaken, the Clean Air Act has been a success – the big killer in the Great Smog of 1952 was sulphur dioxide from the burning of coal and this is no longer a significant problem in the UK.  The pollutants of concern now are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, mainly from vehicle engines.  Various epidemiological and toxicological studies into the health effects of traffic-related air pollution have identified a range of effects including cardiopulmonary conditions, increased risk of non-allergic respiratory symptoms and disease, myocardial infarction, changes in the regulation of the nervous system and inflammatory responses. Further studies have identified an increased risk of various cancers such as lung cancer with prolonged exposure, adverse effects during pregnancy and a decrease in male fertility.

There is legislation in place to manage these pollutants.  The EU has set air quality limit values (expressed as ‘objectives’ in UK law, interestingly).  These limit values are based on empirical data about the effect the pollutants have on health – some pollutants have standards expressed as annual average concentrations due to the chronic way in which they affect health and others have standards expressed as 24-hour, one-hour or 15-minute average concentrations due to the acute way in which they affect health. Some pollutants have standards expressed in terms of both long-term and short-term concentrations, as they have the potential to cause both chronic and acute health effects.

The UK Government passes the responsibility for meeting the air quality objectives to local authorities.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities are required to review and assess air quality. Where objectives are not predicted to be met, local authorities must declare the area as an Air Quality Management Area. In addition, local authorities are required to produce an Air Quality Action Plan which includes measures to improve air quality within the Air Quality Management Area.  But that’s as far as it goes.

In the UK, most large cities fail to meet the air quality objectives.  In some areas, such as in Brixton and Putney, both in London, the objectives are exceeded by a factor of three.  The result of this has been estimated at 50,000 premature deaths per year across the UK by a House of Commons Committee report. The Greater London Authority has also commissioned research which suggests that air pollution contributed to 4,267 premature deaths in London in 2008.

Clearly the system is not working.  With the Great Smog of 1952 providing a stark realisation that earlier legislation was not working (air quality legislation in the UK dates back to the Alkali Act 1863) and that death and disease on this scale was not acceptable, the Government of the day passed the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Faced with economic woes (sound familiar?), the Government (Conservative, led by Harold Macmillan) took action, albeit following severe pressure from back benchers.  They took bold, costly and effective steps to deal with the problem. So, faced with an air quality and mortality problem on a similar scale, what does our Conservative (and Liberal Democrat) Government of 2012 do?  According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, “the Government is putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules instead of prioritising action to cut pollution on UK roads.”  And rather than cutting pollution from UK roads, this Government, also faced with economic difficulties, chooses instead to spend £1 billion building more roads.

Why is this acceptable?

Sustainable Smartphone

Green Manx phone box
Green phone?  Image via Wikipedia

After 18 months with my HTC Desire I can now upgrade to a new smartphone and I have been doing some investigating into what’s the most sustainable and smartest option out there.

Obviously the most sustainable thing to do would be to stick with what I have.  After all, it is a working smartphone.  There are two problems with that though.  Firstly, like many consumer products, it wasn’t built for long life.  As I have experienced with many phones, after a year the battery life started to noticeably deteriorate.  Now it struggles to last a full day of moderate usage.  I could buy a new battery, but battery life is just one of the ailments of this ageing handset.  In general, it doesn’t have the zip it used to have, and suffers from periodic hangs and crashes.

The second issue is that the pace of technological innovation and advances in smartphone technology is such that within six months, what was a cutting edge device outdone.  One specific example of relevance to my HTC Desire is the regular updating of operating systems.  My Desire runs version 2.2 of the Android operating system.  Version 4 was launched by Google just recently.  The latest handsets also have bigger screens, higher resolution screens, additional functionality, more memory, faster processors… the list goes on.

So, now that I have taken the decision to upgrade, what features do I want to have on my new smartphone?  The following are absolute requirements.  Any phone that can’t do these simply is not smart enough.

  • Good call quality (a fundamental basic)
  • Web browsing, with WiFi and 3G connectivity
  • A reasonable range of apps available
  • Access to work email and my Hotmail account
  • A calendar that will sync with my work Outlook calendar
  • A camera that shoots decent quality stills and video
  • Mapping
  • Music player
  • At least 16GB of storage, or the ability to supplement the onboard storage with a memory card to achieve at least 16GB in total.

That probably doesn’t rule out any specific operating systems for smartphones, but to simplify, I can immediately say that I am simply not interested in BlackBerry, iPhone or any of Nokia’s Symbian phones.  They are either not compatible enough with other systems I use or they are just not cool and attractive enough.  That leaves just Android and Windows Phone.  I had stated earlier that I was leaning towards going with Windows Phone, but things have moved on and I have been distinctly unimpressed with some of the new handsets launched for Windows Phone.  That, and the eventual release of a dedicated Hotmail app for Android, has brought Android right back into the frame.

So I decided to look next at various handset makers and their sustainability performance.  Greenpeace publishes an annual Guide to Greener Electronics.  In this, they “rank the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change.”  The version I have been looking at is almost a year old, but the next version isn’t due out til next month so it will have to do.  Also, having looked at this on occasion over the last few years, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of movement, with good companies staying near the top and poor performers near the bottom consistently.  Looking a the rankings and scores, Nokia are in the top position (score: 7.5), Sony Ericsson in second (score: 6.9), Samsung fifth (5.3), Motorola sixth (5.1), Apple ninth (4.9) and LG 14th (3.5).

That report focussed just on environmental issues though.  Looking more broadly at sustainability, earlier this year Corporate Knights produced its sixth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world.  This list ranked corporations using a set of Key Performance Indicators covering environmental, social, governance and financial data.  In terms of smartphone makers, Nokia was ranked fourth, Sony 30th and Samsung 93rd.

The Good Guide app, which I have recommended previously, against scores Nokia top in its cell phone category.  Motorola seems to do ok, with Samsung, Apple and HTC lingering some way behind.  BlackBerry gets a very poor score indeed.  Specific issues noted in the Good Guide and which form the basis for its scores include a very low score for Samsung on quality, safety and performance management, a low score for Apple in terms of its ethical policies and performance and a low score for HTC on labour and human rights.

The Free2Work app looks more specifically at labour issues.  Unfortunately in its Electronics category, only one maker of smartphones is listed, Apple.  They have been scored ‘D’, which is what most of the electronics companies listed have been scored.  Only HP score better and that is just a ‘C’.  Criticisms it levels at Apple include a lack of transparency in its supply chain and supplier monitoring and a lack of a requirement placed on contractors and subcontractors to pay workers a living wage.  It would be easy to say that Apple should be able to do better given how wealthy it is and the substantial markups on its products, but without comparator data for other suppliers I will refrain from being too critical of them.

Finally, from a purely allegorical evidence base, Nokia has a great reputation for producing good quality, long-lasting phones (my wife is still using one she got over three years ago).  Going back to my earlier point about longevity, this could also be seen as an important factor in choosing a sustainable smartphone.

Nokia Lumia 800

So in terms of sustainability, all signs seem to be pointing to Nokia.  It is good then that Nokia have just launched a new smartphone using the Windows Phone OS.  Granted that the Lumia 800 is not the highest specced smartphone out there, but it meets all of the minimum requirements set out above and looks good at the same time.

Sustainable smartphone?  You can’t do better than the Nokia Lumia 800 in my opinion.

Green Government – Where Do We Stand?

Logo of Conservative Party UK

Green Government? Image via Wikipedia

After winning the 2010 election, the UK’s new government pledged to be the greenest ever.  So a year on where are we?

This week, the larger of the two parties forming the UK’s coalition government, the Conservative Party, held its annual party conference.  It didn’t start well for environmentalists when the Chancellor, George Osborne (the man who in 2009 said “If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe”), revealed his plan that “We’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, then revealed plans to increase the speed limit on British motorways to 80 miles per hour.  The government acknowledged soon after that this would lead to more pollution and increase the risk of road deaths.  I find this policy completely bonkers – aren’t governments there to protect the people, even from themselves?

Then we had  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, the man in charge with a clear vision for how to take the country forward.  His speech did not use the words ‘environment’, ‘carbon’ or ‘climate’ even once.  He said ‘green’ twice and, according to The Guardian, “both mentions of ‘green’ were in passing.  One was part of a wide-ranging blast by David Cameron at the [previous] Labour [government]’s failings. The other – ‘green engineering’ – also came as part of a list of technologies a new economy would be built on.”

So all in all not very promising.  The Guardian newspaper has been tracking the government’s progress using a Green-o-meter, and following the Conservative Party Conference, they dropped the needle from doing better than ‘middle of the road’ to doing worse, and I tend to agree.

There simply does not seem to be any fresh ideas coming from the government, with the same old rhetoric focussing always on GDP growth and short-sighted protectionism of established industries.  Andrew Simms in The Guardian asked Why protect BAE jobs when you can convert them to the green economy?  He argued against protecting jobs in the arms industry while setting out greater benefits that would arise from spending on houses, public transport and infrastructure.  I also think there must be a lot of talented engineers and other professionals in the arms industry whose skills could be put to more humane uses elsewhere.

And finally I also read this week about Niu Wenyuan, a senior economist and government adviser in China who is trying to promote the use of a ‘quality index’ which measures the economy not just by size, but by sustainability, social equality and ecological impact.  You might say that this would then give a truer sense of costs and benefits than relying on GDP alone as a measure of progress.  This seems like a great idea to me, and it may or may not take off in China, but I can’t see it being adopted in western democracies where our politicians can’t see past the next election and don’t seem to have the vision or courage to stray from the accepted way of doing things.

David Mitchell’s Soapbox

Comedian David Mitchell is doing a series of videos for the Guardian newspaper about a variety of topical subjects.  Two recent episodes have been on environmental topics.

In this first video, David talks about using market forces to drive sustainability, in focussing on the short shelf life of cheap modern goods and air travel.

In terms of my ‘smart sustainable home’, it has made me give some more thought to the issue of longevity of furniture, fixtures and fittings.

In this second video, David takes on climate change doubters.  He makes the point, in his inimitable style, that in addition to the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening, from a precautionary point of view we should tackle climate change because we aren’t sure it isn’t happening.  A very good line of argument indeed.

When confronted with climate change sceptics, I have always sought to broaden the argument to include other problems relating to burning fossil fuels.  For instance, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing coming out of chimneys and car exhaust pipes.  Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are proven to cause health problems.  So surely, making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Fossil fuels will one day run out.  Already we are having to go to more remote locations to take advantage of more difficult-to-extract sources.  Some would even say that global politics and wars are ruled by the availability of oil.  This too suggests that making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Finally, fossil fuels are increasingly expensive.  Using less not only is good for the environment, but is good for your pocket too.

The whole series of David Mitchell’s Soapbox videos can be found here.

Shedding a Light on Appropriate Technology

Appropriate technology is, according to Wikipedia“technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community it is intended for.”

For me, appropriate technology is about using the materials and human resources that are to hand to provide a technological solution.  Basically, don’t over-engineer technological solutions.

My sister sent me this link to a Youtube video last week and it is a great example of appropriate technology.  It features a slum community in the Philippines where they are using something as simple as a plastic bottle, water and a little bleach (to prevent algal growth) to bring light into the homes of people who cannot afford to use electrical lighting.  The Youtube clip is approaching a million hits and the BBC have also been out there to see this in action.

What gets me excited about this sort of thing is not just the immediate consequences, in this case lighting someone’s home, but the greater potential that it has.  Light in the home can lead to a better quality of life but also brings opportunities for increased productivity and education that can lift people out of poverty.  Quite simply, the ability to read at home for me is the greatest value that this can bring.

If you are interested in finding out more about appropriate technology, there are some great charities out there, such as Practical Action, that work to promote development through promotion of appropriate technology.

Smart Sustainable Home – A Methodology

New beech leaves, Grib Forest in the northern ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been giving some thought to how I will approach making my home and life smart and sustainable.  It’s been quite difficult to come up with something robust and systematic as this is a project that will be ongoing over many years, rather than being a discrete project with a finite period of implementation.

Central to the project will be the formulation of a vision.  This will set the scope and parameters of the project (i.e. how much of my life will it extend to and what I want to achieve overall).  Then, for each mini-project or significant purchase, a specification will be prepared for what it needs to achieve (for example this could be the purchase of a new television or a project such as getting a new kitchen).  By their nature, specifications will be performance-based.  Performance will have technology elements (e.g. a mobile phone may be required to have 3G connectivity) and sustainability elements (e.g. a new kitchen may be required to have all wood from sustainable sources).  The setting of specifications could get tricky when technological requirements and sustainability goals conflict, but in these cases I will try to have to revert to the vision to try to keep me on the correct path.

After applying the specification it may be that a number of products meet the brief.  In these cases, the shortlist of products will be subjected to a comapritive appraisal of their sustainability performance.  This is something I have some experience of through my work, and I will be looking to develop an appraisal method to guide me in this respect.

So, going forward the first thing I need to do is set the vision.  This will require a certain amount of crystal ball gazing to see where technology is headed over the coming years and that is the next big thing I will be focussing on.