Comment: Congestion charge a breath of fresh air

Fumes from a car that is waiting at traffic lights on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

Fumes from a car that is waiting at traffic lights on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

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In the rush to reject any possibility of a congestion charge many lost sight of the reasoning and the thinking behind such a scheme. The 2005 proposal sought to tackle the serious problems of air pollution and chronic traffic congestion and while our city has undergone significant improvements in the intervening decade, this blight remains.

Being stuck in traffic costs us valuable time when we could be with our families, relaxing with friends or even getting to work on time! The stress and aggravation to those inside the car is clear. However, the overlooked and more serious effect is on those outside the car. Traffic congestion causes air pollution which impacts on everyone’s health and causes unnecessary death. Government figures suggest that air pollution alone kills over 200 people every year in Edinburgh. To put that figure in context, across Scotland, 20 times more people die from air pollution than in road traffic accidents.

This invisible killer manifests itself in the form of asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and cancers. Edinburgh council has declared five pollution zones in the city, which include the city centre, parts of Leith, St John’s Road, Grassmarket and Haymarket, where levels of pollution are breaking legal limits. This is the uncomfortable truth: too much driving is bad for our health.

There comes a point when we must sensibly look at our options and perhaps set off down a different road.

The council is nearly ten years behind schedule in meeting its targets for clean air so it is surprising to see that it has moved so quickly to rule out congestion charging. We are all paying the price of dirty air, and tackling congestion would be one of the key ways to provide better, healthier air for Edinburghers. Less traffic would also make the city centre a more pleasant place to spend time and help local businesses thrive.

Congestion charging has proven to be successful in London in reducing traffic by 20 per cent in just five years. The revenue from congestion charges could be ring-fenced to support projects which ensure that people can still travel easily in and out of the city, such as measures to improve public transport, increase pedestrian areas and bring in more and better cycle lanes.

Edinburgh City Council has been streets ahead of many councils, with one of the best bus services and an ambitious plan to get more people walking and cycling, yet we still have the inglorious title of most gridlocked city in the country. Our city leaders need to realise that bold and brave measures are required to protect us. Put simply, the price of driving needs to reflect the human cost of driving.

Emilia Hanna is air pollution campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland