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The London Society aims to provide a platform for the debate on how London ought to develop, and to go with our theme of ‘change’ in 2021, we will have a strand of articles on the blog called “Change: Opinions” – polemical pieces that make a case for a radically changing some aspect of the status quo or of received wisdom.

Here, Jon Burke formerly a Hackney Councillor, and the Cabinet Member for Energy, Waste, Transport and Public Realm, argues that on environmental, medical and social grounds, drastic action has to be taken against the motor vehicle in London. Part 1 (below) looks at the scale of the problem, and part 2 addresses what we need to do. You can download the whole article here (PDF).

If you have a piece that you would like to submit, please email


When confronting the failure of successive Governments to respond to the growing threat of German rearmament in the 1930s, Winston Churchill described it as ‘the decade that the locusts hath eaten’  [1] . Though there are significant differences between those troubled years and our own times, there are also striking similarities. 

If ever there was a decade of wasted time and squandered opportunities to address London’s ballooning surface transport emissions, and the associated social, environmental, and public health crises; if ever there was a decade of collective political denial in the face of this glaring problem; it was the one we’ve just seen out.

Despite increasingly ambitious national decarbonisation commitments and the passing of many ‘climate emergency’ motions in the capital’s Town Halls, we look back on a decade in which the number of miles driven on London’s roads each year increased by a staggering 3.9 billion [2]. And despite grandiose environmental pronouncements, almost 400 million more litres of fossil fuels were being burnt by motor vehicles on London’s roads in 2019 than in 2009. 

It is a sobering thought that London took 100 years to get to 20 billion miles driven by motor vehicles, and less than ten years to increase that by more than 15% [3]. More sobering still is the fact that, until the advent of Covid-19, London’s councils had overwhelmingly failed to take radical action to retard this growth.

And it is not just the quantitative aspects of London’s addiction to cars that are so damaging, there are major challenges in terms of the kinds of vehicles on our roads, the geographical distribution of journeys, and their distance:

  • Sales of space-dominating SUVs, which are designed for off-road driving, now make up 40 percent of car sales in the U.K. In 2019, over 150,000 new cars were sold that are too big to fit in a standard parking space [4]. 
  • since 2009, London’s neighbourhoods have absorbed the full increase in miles driven on the capital’s roads; while, since 2006, the number of miles driven on London’s main roads annually has fallen by 800 million [5], demonstrating the profound impact that Waze and other ‘satnav’ technology have had in turning our communities into giant bypasses for the benefit of individual drivers [6]; and
  • 50% of car journeys in the capital are for distances of less than 3km [7]. 

Thousands of Londoners die prematurely every year due to air pollution [8], yet land transport emissions have continued to increase, both as a share of the U.K’s emissions – 22% come from the land transport sector [9] – and in absolute terms.

Yet, despite the alarming impacts that motor vehicles impose, denial abounds. Perhaps the most striking similarity with the 1930s and our own time is the hostility shown to uncomfortable truths and necessary change. The politician willing to tell drivers things that they do not want to hear needs to be prepared for sustained attack.

Despite the extensive – and increasingly obvious – environmental, public health, and social impacts of motor vehicles, there is an extremely vocal, if not particularly numerous, group of people engaging in criminal damage [10], online abuse and threats of violence towards elected officials who have implemented measures which are designed to eliminate through-traffic and local car journeys that could otherwise be walked, cycled, or undertaken by public transport. 


Cars and the public health crisis

Looking at the health impacts of air pollution in London– a large proportion of which is generated by the operation of motor vehicles, through the particulate matter they generate via road wear, tyre abrasion, brake wear, and through their tailpipe emissions - we would have to conclude that emergency action to curtail the number of cars on our roads is not only required, but that it is long overdue.Long exposure to air pollution can contribute to a number of illnesses, such as asthma, pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Scientists know this; politicians know this; and, with the recent ruling that air pollution was a contributing factor in Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death, the public now know this [11]. 

Air pollution in London contributes to the premature deaths of 9,400 Londoners a year, at a cost to the NHS of between £1.4 and £3.7 billion [12]. Air quality can also have lifelong impacts. One study, published in The Lancet, which monitored lung function in London boroughs such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, found that “that diesel-dominated air pollution in cities is damaging lung development in children, putting them at risk of lung disease in adult life and early death” [13]. Professor Chris Griffiths, who led the research, said: "This reflects a car industry that has deceived the consumer and central government which continues to fail to act decisively to ensure towns and cities cut traffic”  [14].

Air pollution in our cities also disproportionately affects groups such as the working class and minority ethnic communities [15], which are already impacted by a wide variety of other social inequalities. And it is clear that electric vehicles are not going to save us from these problems.

Motor vehicles also present a significant risk to the safety of Londoners. In 2019, there were 25,341 reported collisions in London, resulting in 125 deaths, 3,780 serious injuries, and 26,102 slight injuries   [16]., andas the overloaded main road network has displaced billions of driven miles onto London’s residential streets, road danger in our neighbourhoods has significantly increased. As the Mayor of London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Will Norman, notes: 

“…as traffic on residential streets has increased, so has the number of collisions. Sadly, over the last decade, the number of walking & cycling casualties on neighbourhood streets increased by 38% - almost double the 21% increase on main roads.” [17]


Cars and the climate crisis 

The increase in miles driven on London’s roads over the past decade also has significant implications for the U.K’s ability to hit its legally-binding decarbonisation targets. Locally, this is also presenting London councils – such as Hackney, which is seeking compliance with the IPCC’s 1.5C higher confidence thresholds – with significantchallenges in meeting their own decarbonisation targets.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) December 2020 6th Carbon Budget is clear that the U.K cannot meet its legally-binding decarbonisation commitments without drastically curtailing surface transport emissionsTechnology alone cannot deliver the scale of reductions required. , The CCC  are clear that, In addition to the full electrification or other tailpipe decarbonisation of every car by 2050, we need to reduce the amount of miles driven on our roads by a minimum of 17% against 2017 levels. In London, that equates to some 3.8 billion miles [18]. 

However, instead of taking its lead from climate science, the automotive industry continues to market ever-larger, more energy-intensive motor vehicles, leading to a significant increase in sales of SUVs and in associated emissions; between 2010 and 2018 “SUVs doubled their global market share from 17% to 39% and their annual emissions rose to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2, more than the yearly total emissions of the UK and the Netherlands combined” [19]. 

When taking into account the emissions scandal, when automotive manufacturers such as Volkswagen fitted equipment to deceive regulators, it’s clear that the industry cannot be trusted to deliver the technological advances required and more stringent regulation of the industry is required.

While the Government’s recent announcement that it would ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles beyond 2030 is welcome, both the timeframe and proposed exemptions – such as ‘self-charging hybrids’, which former Transport for London Board Member Michael Liebreich describes as “a fossil-fuelled car being marketed to people without knowledge by people without ethics[20] – are clearly not ambitious enough.

Cars and the social crisis 

The impacts of London’s growing addiction to driving are not merely limited to air pollution and planet-roasting CO2; they can also be measured in the safety of Londoners to traverse their, and on the social lives of our cities. 

The impact of car culture on the destruction of established communities, with their deep social networks, is well-established. Urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who chronicled the destruction of America’s established urban communities at the hands of planners commented that “not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of...communities”. The extensive body of academic literature on social isolation, unemployment, criminality, and a whole range of negative social phenomena arising from the displacement of communities to accommodate car culture would appear to support this view.

The social impact of ‘car gluttony’ is also well-established in the literature, which confirms that the number of friends and acquaintances reported by residents was significantly lower on streets with higher volumes of motor traffic; that the extent of people’s ‘home territories’ diminished as motor traffic increased; and that individuals’ perceptions of road safety in their neighbourhood are disproportionately influenced by the traffic conditions on their street of residence, especially affecting the degree of independence granted to children [21].  

Car culture is not only bad for our health and the environment, it is a poison coursing through the veins of our neighbourhoods, slowly killing the rich social life of our cities.

PART TWO: "What Should We Do" can be found here


  [1] Winston Churchill, HC Deb 12 November 1936, vol 317 cc1081-155

  [2] Department for Transport, London Road Traffic Statistics – 1993-2019, ONS code: E12000007

  [3] Ibid

  [4] DeSmog, Ban Advertising of Polluting SUVs – Report, 03.08.20

  [5] Op.cit London Road Traffic Statistics – 1993-2019

  [6]   Carlton Reid, 'Rat-running' increases on residential UK streets as experts blame satnav apps, Guardian, 25.09.20

  [7] Transport for London, Technical Note 14

  [8] London Councils (2018), Demystifying Air Pollution in London (full report)

  [9] Climate Change Committee (2020), The Sixth Carbon Budget, The UK’s path to Net Zero, p.95

  [10] Madeleine Cuff, Hackney Council calls on Met Police to stop Low Traffic Neighbourhood vandals and protect road closure schemes, INews, 20.11.20

  [11] Sandra Laville, Air pollution a cause in girl's death, coroner rules in landmark case, Guardian, 16.12.20

  [12] Op.cit Demystifying Air Pollution in London 

  [13] BBC, Pollution linked to 'stunted lung capacity' in London schoolchildren, 15.11.18

  [14] Ibid

  [15] Sam Wong, Ethnic minorities and deprived communities hardest hit by air pollution, Imperial College News, 26.01.15

  [16] Transport for London – Casualties in Greater London during 2019 – Data Release


  [18] Op.cit The Sixth Carbon Budget, The UK’s path to Net Zero, p.101

  [19] Niko Kommenda, SUVs second biggest cause of emissions rise, figures reveal, Guardian, 25.10.19


  [21] Hart, Joshua; Parkhurst (2011), Graham, Driven to excess: Impacts of motor vehicles on the quality of life of residents of three streets in Bristol UK, World Transport Policy & Practice, ISSN - 1352-7614