Introduction: Giving People Back Their Streets

“If a street has a spirit, no matter how narrow it is, we can breathe comfortably over there”. – Mehmet Murat Ildan
“We’re on a road to nowhere” – Talking Heads

“What road do you live on?”

It is a question we ask each other all the time, with the crudest form of transport technology – the road – firmly embedded in our sense of place. Unfortunately roads aren’t always conducive to living, or at least not healthy, sustainable living.

  • In London alone around 4000 people die every year as a result of traffic-related pollution.
  • Road traffic accidents are the second biggest cause of death for people under 30 in the UK.
  • A quarter of the borough’s greenhouse gas emissions come from road transport.

And the roads of Lewisham we never meant to be roads. Most of them were laid out before the car was invented. They were meant to be streets. Streets where people live and work and shop and play. That’s the thinking behind Lewisham’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods – to turn roads that are used as a shortcut to somewhere else back into streets that serve the communities that live along them.

The idea is simple. By restricting access to selected roads for cars, vans and lorries, you reduce the amount of traffic passing through an area and allow more space for safe “active transport” – walking, running, cycling. Roads remain accessible to vehicles, although some journeys are slightly longer, and full access in maintained for bus routes, bin lorries and emergency services.

Photo by Joris Visser on Unsplash

Photo by Joris Visser on Unsplash

The benefits can be significant and immediate. Less traffic means less pollution, less noise, fewer accidents, lower CO2 emissions and a healthier, more pleasant environment. Higher footfall means more customers for shops and restaurants. Lower demand for parking means more space for cafes and bars to expand out on to the streets. Families on bikes replace tailbacks of cars and vans. “School streets” can be closed to vehicles at drop-off and pick-up times to discourage school-run traffic and leave children with cleaner air to breathe.

All of this has become more urgent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The UK government, the Mayor of London and Lewisham Council are all prioritising walking and cycling as socially-distanced alternatives to avoid over-crowding public transport. Low-traffic neighbourhoods are popping up all over London and in towns and cities across the country. If these initial moves are successful, Lewisham Council has an ambitious plan to expand them across the borough.

The schemes are not always universally welcomed. Motorists’ groups are fiercely opposed. Some people, particularly those around the edges of the designated areas are concerned about traffic being displaced to their streets. The evidence is that there is sometimes an initial spike but that traffic volumes diminish as drivers grow accustomed to the new layout and SatNav systems update. In some cases the concerns can be well-founded and Lewisham Council is committed to monitoring traffic levels and making adjustments if there are problems.

Opponents argue that the traffic has to go somewhere but essential car journeys are surprisingly rare in London.

  • According to TFL, 22% of London’s car journeys are 2km, that’s 1.2 miles, and it takes the average adult 20 minutes to walk that distance.
  • Only around fifth of car journeys in London are made for work.
  • 47% of households in Lewisham do not own a car.

Given safe a alternative, the evidence is that people will make different, more sustainable and less polluting choices. Lewisham’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods are a bold experiment in providing our communities with that alternative.

Air pollution – What’s the big deal?

What causes Air pollution in Lewisham?

Lewisham’s main cause of air pollution is from vehicle emissions – especially from diesel cars. Monitoring in Catford showed that 80% of NOx comes from road transport.

The two worst pollutants for our health are Nitrious Oxides (NOx, including NO2) and particulate matter. NOx are poisonous gasses produced by combustion engines. Particulate matter means dust particles which come from braking vehicles’ tyre friction, as well as from the burning of fuel.

How is it measured?

NOx is measured by diffusion tubes at the roadside. NO2 is the measure that the council use to determine how polluted Lewisham is. PM2.5 is more difficult to measure, but citizen studies partnered with Goldsmiths/Cambridge Universities have been carried out in Deptford and more recently in Forest Hill.,

Map showing NO2 measuring diffusion tubes in Lee Green (purple stars mark the locations)

Monitors (diffusion tubes) are installed on Upwood Road, Leahurst Road, and the A205/Manor Lane junction with more being added this Autumn. Monitoring Strategy – Lewisham and Lee Green update

The impact of air pollution on our bodies

Particulate matter

These tiny plastic/rubber and carbon particles are particularly bad for our bodies because when we inhale them they are not stopped by the hairs in our nose, but instead travel right into our bloodstream, reaching all our important organs like our brains, hearts and lungs. NOx also travels into our major organs causing breathing problems, headaches, chronically reduced lung function and eye irritation. PM and NOx both have a damaging effect on our bodies starting from the foetus’s first few weeks in the womb right through to old age. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to air pollution (over years or lifetimes) reduces life expectancy, mainly due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Short-term exposure (over hours or days) can also cause a range of health impacts, including effects on lung function, exacerbation of asthma, increases in respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions and mortality.

The lungs Robina Weermeijer Robina Weermeijer

In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure to ambient air pollution can lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma.


Asthma is one of the most prevalent childhood diseases. Air pollution increases the risk of Asthma attacks but also increases the chance of onset of the disease in children. Children with Asthma are more affected by air pollution because their airways become more easily inflamed and irritated due to the pollutants in their lungs. This impairs their lung function from an early age and increases their risk of respiratory and lung diseases during childhood. Children living in polluted areas have 8-10% lower lung function as a result. Tragically, a child died of Asthma in Catford and a new inquest is being held to determine whether air pollution contributed to her death.

Lung Cancer

There is strong evidence that outdoor air pollution is linked to lung cancer in adults. Research on Cancer (IARC). Thankfully, there is weaker evidence related to children but this could be in part due to lung cancer being rare in children. However, some research suggests that exposure in childhood could contribute to the development of cancers in later life.


People living in more polluted areas are more likely to die from Covid19, which makes sense given that air pollution weakens the lungs and causes major respiratory issues. But air pollution particles may also be a vehicle for transmitting the virus. Air pollution weakens the immune system, compromising people’s ability to fight off infection, according to the European Public Health Alliance. An increase of 1% PM2.5 per cubic metre of air resulted in a 15% increase in Covid Deaths.

The brain Robina Weermeijer Robina Weermeijer

Air pollutants are also suspected neurotoxicants and may affect normal development and functioning of the brain. Not much research has been done in this area yet. Many schools are located in close proximity to busy roads, and traffic air pollution peaks when children are at school which may affect their development. Furthermore, air pollution is now being linked to increased risk of Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Autism and shockingly, was shown to double the risk of Dementia and cognitive decline in older women in one study . A study in China showed that air pollution caused a ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence especially in language ability.

The heart Robina Weermeijer Robina Weermeijer

The risk of heart failure, heart attacks, abnormal rhythms of the heart and stroke is increased by both short and long-term exposure to air pollution in susceptible individuals. This includes older people and individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. As with Lung Cancer, it remains unclear whether exposure to air pollution during childhood influences heart problems in later life. However, it has been found that in children, air pollution causes changes in blood pressure and lung function , after exposure to air pollution which are markers for later performance.

Pregnancy and Babies

Maternal exposure to ambient air pollution is associated with adverse birth outcomes, such as low birth weight and pre-term birth. In fact, infants exposed to even low levels of air pollution experience reduced lung function as children and teenagers. It may even affect fertility.


Emerging evidence also suggests ambient air pollution may affect Type II diabetes contributing to 3.2 million cases of diabetes globally.

What are the legal limits and how bad is it?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) set guideline annual mean limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3) PM2.5 and 40 (μg/m3) of NO2. The UK and EU legal limit for NO2 is also 40 (μg/m3) with 200 µg/m3 not to be exceeded more than 18 times a year but these levels are still not being met in nearly all areas of the UK . The vast majority of Londoners live in an area at least 50 percent higher than the WHO guideline limits. 7.9 million Londoners (nearly 95 percent of the capital’s population) live in areas of London that exceed the guideline limit by 50 percent or more. In 2019, the WHO NO2 limit was exceeded in Brownhill Road Catford, Brockley Rise, Catford Hill, Montpellier Vale, Baring Road, New Cross Air quality Moniroting Site, Loampit Vale, Deptford Park School and Bell Green. Remember these are mean levels, taking an average across all the dataset, so the levels by the roadside at rush hour when people are travelling will be much higher.

The legal limits set by the UK are higher than the WHO limit seemingly because they are based on achievability not health. PM2.5 is 25(μg/m3) unless you’re in Scotland where it’s in line with WHO levels. Experts agree there is no “safe” level for PM2.5 or NO2.

Hasn’t pollution got a lot better than it used to be?

PM2.5 is much worse in cities like New Delhi and Beijing than in London. But NO2 levels in London were nearly as bad as the Chinese and Indian capitals in 2018 and much worse than New York or Madrid. Even though the emissions have reduced as cars have become more efficient, we have bigger cars and more of them. As population increases, levels or air pollution will increase unless we take action and dramatically reduce driving. Unfortunately, simply changing to electric cars will still cause a lot of air pollution through tyre wear, but it would reduce NOx (and also carbon dioxide which causes climate change). Going electric is a start toward tackling air pollution but ultimately we need to massively reduce car and road transport journeys if we want clean air and better health. The good news for central London is that compared to 2016 when London’s air exceeded the hourly legal limit for NO2 for over 4,000 hours, in 2019, this fell to just over 100 hours – a reduction of 97% Sadly, this is not the case for Lewisham which is not counted as central London so is not represented by these figures. The drop in Central London is due to measures like the congestion charge and the ULEZ (Ultralow emission zone) which is due to come to the South Circular boundary in 2021. The extension of the ULEZ will improve air pollution in parts of Lewisham to the north of the South Circular by around 30% and could also improve pollution south of the road so it is important to support it if you want clean air and better health. The levels of PM2.5 have not been as effectively measured for comparison.

Aren’t I better off driving than on the streets?

Pollution is actually worse in cars because the air conditioning traps particles from surrounding vehicles and lorries in the car cabin. Idling at traffic lights can create super-high levels of pollutants inside the car. Pollution levels inside cars is 9-12 times worse than outside. As long as cyclist and pedestrians take “green routes” and stay away from main roads they experience less pollution than car drivers.

The Financial Cost

Modelling has been used to quantify the cost of air pollution. UK-wide, the impact on the NHS is estimated at £157 million annually.

The health effects of toxic air in London costs is estimated to cost 3.7 Billion per year in lost work days, hospital emissions and lost years of life.

The Environment Audit Committee considered that the annual cost of health and environmental impacts of air pollution to the UK was likely to exceed estimates of £8-20 billion, exceeding the costs of obesity, alcohol misuse, traffic accidents and passive smoking. These are staggering numbers which demonstrate why the government and local councils are finally starting to take action.

The numbers can be confusing (that’s always the case with statistics), but the scientific and economic evidence is depressingly unequivocal that Air pollution is seriously damaging our health and therefore our economy. It is undoubtedly time to take action.

Traffic and CO2 emissions

Transport represents 25% of Lewisham borough’s CO2 emissions (see chart below) and tackling this is a central focus of the council’s transport strategies and programmes. The ambition is to make Lewisham a place where the low carbon choice of travel is the easy choice.

The Council’s baseline for this study was 2017/18, the most recent year available for most datasets. The study calculated the borough’s baseline as 804,961 tonnes CO2e broken down as follows:

Lewisham emissions chart

What you can do

Photo by Nikolay Dimitrov on Unslpash

If you are concerned about the effect of heavy city traffic on air quality and/or the Climate Crisis and you would like to help to reduce traffic-based air pollution and CO2e emissions in your area, there are some things you can do:

  1. If you drive a car consider how to avoid using your car for short journeys around your local area. Every journey counts. If you are among the 47% of Lewisham residents who don’t have a car, congratulate yourself for making it this far in life without four wheels. Avoiding driving is the first thing you can do for air quality and environment.
  2. Consider switching to a car-share or car club. Hiyacar is a peer-to-peer hire service: you hire someone else’s car when they’re not using it and give them a rating afterward for cleanliness and maintenance. No upfront joining fees, you pay on arrival and you meet the car owner at pickup. Fees are reasonable and include insurance. Zipcar is a car-club: there is a monthly fee, you book online and pick up the car using a special card, like an Oystercard. An amount of mileage is included. Both are present in Lewisham.
  3. Visit Lewisham’s online portal and support the measures that are in your area, with a comment or a thumbs up, or suggest new modifications to make your streets more pedestrian-friendly. The modal filters in the current trial LTN need a bit of support. See here how you can click on them to support their installation.
  4. Hither Green West are a community group actively campaigning for a Low Traffic Neighbourhood in their area as they have suffered from increased traffic from the first Hither Green Low Traffic Neighbourhood. Add your voice by signing their petition
  5. Consider cycling for short local journeys, it’s a great way to get fit and avoid creating congestion and pollution. Lewisham Cyclists run regular ‘Dr Bike’ sessions where they will repair your bike for free. They also do ‘buddying’ to support your bike-commute to work. If you don’t have a bike and would like to cycle, there is the national ‘cycle to work’ scheme, where employers support you to buy a bike and related equipment and payment is taken out of your pay, before tax (quite good). This has recently been extended to include e-bikes (up to £5000!). See Jane’s video about her trusty e-bike on our website here. Read about Alice’s new bike commute from Forest Hill to Greenwich park.
  6. Change the story in your street. Your street is probably full of cars. If you’re friendly with your neighbours run a ‘Play Street’ to give your neighbours a taste of what it’s like to live on a low-traffic street. This means closing your street to traffic so children can play and adults can socialise, all outdoors. Read Zaria’s blog about her 2019 play street on Blythe Hill.

If you’d like to set up a Play Street here’s a guide for the process.

Other modal filters in Lewisham we’ve grown to know and love

Further reading

A good website to look at is the website of the charity Living Streets who promote everyday walking and safer street environments

They have published a really useful PDF  about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that is worth downloading

Make Lee Green is a residents group campaigning for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in SE12 and SE13