Thursday, 19 April 2012

Brent scoops the pollution prize in time for the Climate Rush "Spring Clean"

Brent has the most polluted location in London, it is revealed by the Brent & Kilburn Times:
According to the London Air Quality Network (LAQN), Neasden Lane reached the maximum of 36 Bad Air Days per year on Tuesday (11).
This means any further days could be breaking legal requirements on pollution levels.
It is claimed that the poor quality of air is due to waste transfer activities at Neasden Goods Yard and the proximity of the North Circular Road.
Last year the maximum amount of pollution allowed was exceeded 77 times, more than double the acceptable level.
Simon Birkett, founder and director of campaigning group Clean Air in London, who work closely with LAQN in their attempts to combat pollution said levels were ‘dangerously high’. 
He said: “This is not dust these are invisible and dangerous airborne particles including some which are toxic or carcinogenic. 
“The Neasden Lane breach is the latest evidence that there has been a failure to address the biggest public health crisis for decades.” 
Brent council confirmed that a monitoring station which had been set up on site showed that standards for air quality were ‘repeatedly breached’.
So, as we are only one quarter of the way through 2012, and Neasden Lane has already had more days over the "safe" limit than are "allowed" for a whole year (I am not sure why any days over the limit are "allowed" at all, but there you are), it appears that pollution in Neasden Lane (which I often cycle on) is twice what it was last year.

As I have discussed before, this is one district of London where cycling for practical journeys is to all intents and purposes impossible, because of the severing of the whole area by infrastructure that is almost impossible for cyclists to negotiate: the North Circular Road barrier (creating much of the pollution), the appalling huge gyratory junctions around Neasden, which force cyclists to take extremely circuitous and inconvenient ways round (and walk), or else take on motorway-style slip roads and the terrifying "Death Valley" underpass, plus the barriers of the railway corridors: the Chiltern Line, with no bridges between the North Circular and Wembley Hill Road, a distance of 1.5 miles, and the Metropolitan and Jubilee Lines, with no bridges between the North Circular and Bridge Road, Wembley, again a distance of 1.5 miles, plus the nasty lorry-filled one-way roads of the Wembley Park industrial estate, should one manage to get across the North Circular, and into that impassible triangle of land between the diverging railway lines that separates Neasden and Willesden from Wembley (only possible via the North Circular itself, and Great Central Way).

The situation of Neasden Lane, courtesy of Google maps

"Death Valley" for cyclists, at Neasden (A4088 underpass beneath North Circular)
North-south journeys through Neasden are restricted to Neasden Lane (the B453) or Dudden Hill Lane (the A4088) because of the North London freight line. Both these roads take you inexorably to the Neasden gyratory mess, unless you use the pedestrian footbridges illegally. Neasden lane itself is a very unpleasant road to cycle on, being quite wide in parts (but always one lane) and narrow in others, particularly by the tube station, and where the road passes under the North London freight line. Here, cyclists are squeezed between the constricting kerbs of the pavements, aggressive "Titan" kerbing which has been used for central traffic-calming islands, and cars and lorries roaring up from behind.

Here's the view I got when I called up Neasden Lane on Google Earth. The Google camera got it spot on: typical conditions: narrow lanes dominated by heavy industrial vehicles, with no space for cycling.
The part of Neasden north of the North Circular, totally divorced from the southern part, is sandwiched between the vast Underground railway depot, the River Brent (a tiny stream, but one with strangely few crossing points), and the Brent Reservoir. It would be lovely if there were a connection for pedestrians and cyclists from the north to the south side of the reservoir in Neasden, other than the deeply unpleasant race-track of Neasden Lane North, and I discussed the possibility that such might be created with Brent Council and British Waterways (who own the reservoir and land around it) years ago, but British Waterways kiboshed the idea because they thought it would be a "security risk" to have pedestrians and cyclists near the dam, and nobody at Brent Council was prepared to push the idea. (Why it would be a security risk uniquely here, when pedestrians and cyclists use dams for access all across the rest of the UK and Europe, I have not a clue).

The end result is that Neasden and Wembley are the most cycle-impermeable suburbs you are likely to find anywhere in Britain, and travel on foot here is also awkward, inconvenient and unpleasant. It is not in the least bit surprising that, for almost everybody, the only practical means of transport here are the car, bus, and train. It is not in the least bit surprising that Neasden Lane is the most polluted place in London. The record has no doubt been worsened by the low rainfall we have had this year. Some of the pollution is due to the waste transfer station adjacent to the road. Some may be due to the Chiltern Line, which has some diesel units, though I expect not much. Mostly it will be the traffic, particularly the diesel lorries. Neasden Lane is actually in a slight valley, into which the pollution from the North Circular will sink.

And all this is little more than a mile from Wembley Stadium, the national sports stadium, the biggest of the six stadiums hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. Wembley however only will host two Olympic events: men's and women's football. That's probably just as well. We don't want too many of the athletes of the world to be given asthma at the London "greenest Olympic Games in history". As to our own teams that play there regularly, well, they are British, they must be used to it by now: lungs of steel, and all that.

If you are seeing the Olympic football, or any other match, or any other event at the stadium or concert arena, my advice is not to try to get to Wembley by bike. Unless you live in the part of London to the north of Wembley, which you probably do not, it would be a major challenge. There was a plan, about five years ago, to create "greenway" cycle and walking routes to Wembley Stadium from all directions, in time for the Olympics. Sustrans was involved. It was called, cleverly, the Wembley GOAL project, standing for Greenways for the Olympics And London. Of course, as usual for these things in this country, there was no funding for it, beyond the initial studies, and nothing ever happened, save for employing consultants for a few weeks, and wasting a few days of LCC volunteers' time. Pretty coloured maps were produced, residential streets and parks were cycled around, "stakeholders" were consulted, and the project then vaporised. I could write a whole long post just on this scandal – it is a story that has not yet been told – but I will not do so today. Little enough has been done for cycling and walking access to the main Olympic Park in East London, as many other bloggers have mentioned, but at least something happened there. At least a new platform was constructed to allow the route along the Lea canal to be continuous, even though it looks like that route, crazily, will be closed for the Olympics themselves because of, again, the absurd "security" obsession. But precisely nothing happened in Wembley, or in Brent.

The fantasy "greenways" conceived for the Sustrans Wembley GOAL study of 2007, never built

Here is a newer version. Sustrans still propose (or was still proposing in 2009) this contorted Greenway "network" for Brent. Apart from the fact that it has made practically no progress, in my view, this entire concept is wrong, of attempting to push cyclists onto obscure, un-useful byways. Large-scale popular cycling will only ever be achieved by giving people on bikes direct, convenient, safely segregated routes on main roads, as they have done in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

So pollution in Boris Johnson's London continues to spiral out of control, killing 2,200 people per year, according to the latest research reported by the BBC. This is about ten times the number of people killed in road crashes in London. And of course everybody's health must be affected, not just that of those who die as a result of the pollution. Johnson's "solution" is to put pollution suppressants in front of air quality monitors, so reducing the number of occasions on which the PM10 value is reported to be breached and reducing the number of smog alerts, both preventing the public from being warned of the dangerous conditions, and attempting to circumvent the discovery of legal breaches, and application of fines. This is what the Campaign for Clear Air in London, a non party-political organisation, condemns as "public health fraud on an industrial scale". And as the MP for Brent North, Barry Gardiner, said in a Tweet yesterday: "Boris's pollution suppressors near air quality monitors is like putting breathing apparatus on the canary in the mines!"

Those living or working on or near main roads like Neasden Lane and the North Circular Road are the ones at the sharpest end, the ones who will pay the heaviest price for this truly criminal public health fraud. But its all connected, and we all suffer, from the failure to control motor traffic in London, the failure to provide decent routes for walking and cycling, the failure to live up to the spin of "the greenest Olympics ever", the failure to arrest the degradation of the environment.

If you can, support the Climate Rush Spring Clean walk and cycle march, rally and direct action, today, Thursday 19 April, at 6:00pm outside DEFRA, 17 Smith Square, London SW1. And of course, come on the LCC Big Ride, calling for "streets as safe and inviting for cycling as they are in Holland", on 28 April. Most importantly, do vote in the London mayoral election on 3 May for a candidate who does not think the best way to combat pollution is to try to glue it to the road.


  1. A few weeks ago I went to see the temple in Neasden (interesting but not the point of this post). That involved
    A wall from the tube along the north circular road. I'm amazed there have only been 36 bad air days so far.

  2. Search for "Schools near Neasden station, London" or "Nurseries & Creches near Neasden station, London" in Google maps and weep.

    If you are so inclined, have a look in PubMed on the effects of particles: asthma and other respiratory diseases, but also cardiovascular problems. The focus is on PM10, but smaller molecules (PM5, PM2.5) are even more dangerous and not monitored. See there: