Still not ready to give up your solo car commute? You might soon change your mind…

pollution charge
Could a pollution charge be introduced for Manchester city centre?

By Simon Donohue

The traffic jam begins just beyond my garden gate and slithers all the way into Manchester city centre at a snail’s pace. Some days the six mile journey takes more than an hour.

I sometimes cycle or use the park and ride bus service, but work occasionally dictates there’s no alternative to taking the car into town. It’s a hellish journey faced by thousands across Greater Manchester every working day and things seem to be getting worse by the week.

Things could have been different.

In 2008, voters in Greater Manchester reacted to a referendum on congestion charging with a resounding “no”, effectively tying the hands of any future administration with a plan to unclog the roads.

I was firmly in the no camp at the time, even having to put professionalism ahead of principle to argue in FAVOUR of a charge that nobody wanted as a leader writer at the Manchester Evening News.

The view of then editor Paul Horrocks was that congestion charging was bitter medicine that would make things better. True enough, a “yes” vote would have unlocked a “Big Bang” investment in better public transport. The money hasn’t come so quickly but millions have been spent in spite of the promises that nothing would happen without congestion charging.

Much as I respected Paul’s logic, I maintain that his view was wrong at the time because there were no real alternatives for the thousands of ordinary Greater Mancunians who would be left further out of pocket paying to drive because the alternatives weren’t fit for purpose: Their trains were packed, buses didn’t turn up and they lived nowhere near a tram stop. That’s a point of view echoed by Manchester City Council Chief Executive Howard Bernstein more recently. In 2016, he said that the 2008 debate did not take into account the political and practical implications of the time.

The 2008 vote proved that the MEN’s thinking was more in line with that of the establishment than its core readership.

So what’s changed?

The latest thinking on the future of transport across Greater Manchester is contained in two documents from Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Transport for Greater Manchester. They were published in December 2016 and make it clear that whatever happened in 2008, we are on the cusp of a gargantuan transport revolution in Greater Manchester. Clearly, something significant has to happen.

Some of the ideas are exploratory, points of reference for a fluid vision of transport in the region until 2040, but it’s clear that many of these thoughts are going to come to fruition.

Talk now is of the need to improve air quality (the referedum decision on a ‘congestion’ charge still stands) but it’s clear that the economic viability of the region is as important a driving force for change as health improvement.

Two things are different now. Investment in alternatives has been successful. The much maligned Leigh ‘mis’guided busway actually works, or at least could, if people got out of their cars and used. The V1 andV2 services are brilliant examples of what can be achieved. There is evidence that losing lanes on the A580 has impacted other routes, such as the road where I live, but alternatives are slowly falling into place. More importantly, whether by accident or design, the need for change is greater than ever. The region is grinding to an unsustainable halt.

So what can we expect?

The most important difference appears to be a sensible joined up approach built around a whole range of small but significant changes, some likely to kick in immediately, others over five years, some within the next 25 years.

They’re designed to reduce the number of road journeys and cut C02 emissions. To give you a flavour, it’s likely that you’ll soon be charged to drive in Clean Air Zones across the region if you have a high emitting vehicle, likely to include dirty older diesel and petrol cars.

One central zone would be created in the centre of Manchester but every local authority will be empowered to tackle poor air quality, and therefore congestion, on roads within its boundaries. Just a hunch, but it stands to reason that will include most major commuting routes, which are already being highlighted as the most polluted roads. Remove crawling traffic, which produces lots of pollution, and air quality improves. But it’s NOT a congestion charge, it’s a clean air zone charge.

We’ll also see lots of 20mph zones because air quality is impacted less when vehicles drive more slowly, but traffic flow isn’t almost nonexistent.

Importantly, there will be better and cleaner buses and HGVs, with financial support for companies needing to update their fleets. Grant aid could be available where there’s a compelling business and environmental need. We’ll also see improved cycle facilities and not before time.

Things which will happen pretty much immediately won’t be popular for some, including an end to free parking for local council staff and staggered school opening times and other initiatives to reduce the impact of the school run.

More popular will be initiatives to encourage the take up of Ultra Low Emmitting Vehicles. Electric cars could get cheaper for fleet operators.

All of this and more is highlighted in the latest thinking. It takes some reading but it’s fascinating stuff (see it for yourself:

Conspiracists will say that the roads have become clogged as a result of deliberate acts of planning policy. 

It’s going to involve upheaval and expense but this time I’m in favour. So what’s changed?

For one, we can’t go on as we are. Road journeys are now a nightmare at pretty much all times. Conspiracists will suggest cause and effect – reducing the A580 from three lanes to two certainly had an impact – but the status quo is a state of madness. Does it really make sense for everyone who works in Manchester to have their own car and drive in alone? Not when Metrolink is improved and expanding, and when initiatives like the Leigh Guided Busway and priority lanes are available.

As well as highlighting ongoing measures to improve air quality through enhanced bus, light rail and cycle facilities, the Greater Manchester Low-Emission strategy document supports the thrust of this previous  Dadsdayoff article about a revival of congestion charging plans for Greater Manchester following successful legal action by NGO Client Earth.

It is now acknowledged that the: “Greater Manchester urban area represents one of the 38 non-compliant zones in the UK 1, due to exceedances of the annual mean NO2 limit value. 

“Greater Manchester is not projected to achieve compliance until 2020 without intervention; therefore considerable and far-reaching action is required to achieve compliance, with bodies such as TfGM providing essential support.”

Which brings us back to  private cars. Look away if you still don’t think there’s an alternative, because it’s clear where most blame is being laid for the state we’re in.

The report states that: “Private cars typically represents >70% of the vehicle movements on most roads, and so the influence of cars is significant in most areas where high pollutant concentrations have been identified.

“Furthermore, the large proportion of cars also influences areas of congestion due to the road space taken up by the vehicles.

“Therefore, actions to reduce emissions from private cars should target the whole fleet with less focus on the Key Priority Areas identified for HGVs and buses, and the Key Priority Areas for cars should include all roads where the pollutant concentrations exceed 35μg/m3 and have properties within 25m.

“Detailed information about the car fleet composition will be required to properly understand the emissions arising from this component of the fleet, as the age, fuel-type and typical journey length will determine the emissions profile.

“This in turn will ensure that effective control measures can be considered, such as targeting older vehicles in some areas, or specific fuel types in other areas.”

Suggesting that a central Manchester Clean Air Zone scheme would mainly target older buses and HGVs, it adds:

“Clean Air Zones (CAZs) are seen by central Government as a key measure to improve air quality in major urban areas.

“A CAZ includes a wide range of measures and may include a charging zone, where vehicles that do not meet specified minimum emissions standards are charged for entering the area.

“This can be targeted at the types of vehicle that are seen as the major problem, such as buses and HGVs. The charge for non-compliant vehicles provides an incentive for operators to upgrade their fleets.

“The most suitable location for a CAZ would be one based around the centre of the conurbation, but because there are both pros and cons, careful investigation is required of the impact this may have on behaviours and the wider area.

“If the measure was found to be beneficial, it could potentially be extended to other areas.

“A major concern about introducing a CAZ is the impact on the economy, i.e. whether it would drive business and visitors away from the city. It would certainly be necessary to offer support to fleet operators by giving either grants to help them upgrade their vehicles or a period of several years notice to give them time to comply. The other side of the argument is that there would be economic advantages in Greater Manchester being seen to take a progressive stance on environmental issues and offering a clean environment to residents, workers and visitors.

“Emissions within the CAZ would be reduced but a study will need to assess whether this reduction will be great enough to justify the cost of implementing and operating the CAZ, given that natural fleet replacement will reduce emissions to some extent without any further action.

“A CAZ would be unlikely to generate excess revenue, as its income will reduce over time as more and more vehicles comply with standards. A further issue is that introducing a CAZ in one area may mean that older vehicles will be displaced to other parts of Greater Manchester, or elsewhere. 

“However, Manchester is the hub of the bus network, so setting a standard for the city centre would also raise standards in the areas served by the services that start/terminate there. For goods vehicles the risk of displacement would be greater.”

Call it what you will – congestion charge or clean air charge – change is around the corner. And not before time.