Wednesday, 10 July 2013

i b i k e l o n d o n: Deeds not words, Boris. Join Friday's flashride to tell the Mayor he must act to stop cycle deaths

I don't generally reblog, but this is one of those things which I think is really important. Another person killed on the roads in a manner which was both predictable and predicted. Failure to follow up on rhetoric and nice words means a young lady's life cut short in a horrific accident.

i b i k e l o n d o n: Deeds not words, Boris. Join Friday's flashride to tell the Mayor he must act to stop cycle deaths

Friday, 26 April 2013

Air Pollution in London

When it comes to air pollution most people seem familiar with CO2, acid rain and the like. However there is less appreciation of the significant impact of air pollution much closer to home - the impact of particulates from our roads on Londoners and their lungs.

Given the direct impact on our health, it does not seem to have the level of awareness which it deserves. In addition it is something we can change, both through campaigning and by reducing our personal exposure (avoiding main roads and other pollution hot spots).

Air pollution in London

  • Air pollution is 50% higher in London than rest of the country, and all of London is a high pollution environment. While much of the pollution we breath in is from main roads locally to where we live and work, this is on top of a high background level in London & northern Europe.
  • In London the particulate pollution is most dangerous and the impacts on human health are significant and well established. Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) are also high in London, but the impact on human health is not thought to be so significant.
  • Most air pollution in London comes from transport. 90% of that comes from diesel vehicles which emit approximately 22 times more particulates than the equivalent petrol engine, and 4 times the NOx (however diesels are still encouraged by government).
  • A reduction of 20-30% in pollution levels is required to meet EU limits (although an improvement, these limits are not safe limits).
  • Technology upgrade is not delivering significant improvements in this area eg. the Euro standards for cleaner buses have not brought the benefits hoped for.

Health impact:

  • In central London boroughs 5-7% of all deaths are attributable to air pollution - one of the biggest health problems after smoking.
  • For particulates, there are no safe limits. PM10s stay in the lungs and therefore reduce lung capacity by 5-17%, permanently.
  • It affects the vulnerable disproportionately, the poorest being most affected and levels up to 30% higher for non-white British.
  • Highest exposure is among more vulnerable groups ie the young and the old.
  • The damage to children reduces lung capacity permanently, reflecting on-going damage to developing lungs, pre-disposing to ill effects later in life.
  • There is a cognitive decline in children growing up in polluted environments.
  • There is now data on the cardiovascular effects increasing rate of death.
  • There is clear evidence that pollution affects birth outcomes.
  • Higher levels of exercise increase exposure because we breathe in more of the pollutants.

What Can be Done?

  • Personal mitigation is important and can halve personal intake of pollutants by taking low pollution routes. It is therefore worth drawing maps to tell children which routes to avoid.
  • Masks don’t work unless they are industrial quality.
  • Air pollution needs to be tackled through public health, transport and planning. Putney was able to argue in favour of low emission buses in order to protect users of its High Street from the high pollution found there.
  • The London Plan - developments must be at least air quality neutral and not lead to air quality deterioration. Because London is already failing its polluting targets, development must do all possible to limit pollution.

What needs to be done:

  • People's awareness of this issue needs to be raised so it gets the attention it deserves.
  • The worst emitting vehicles on our roads need to be removed, especially older diesel vehicles. Where vehicles are found to be exceeding legal limits they should be taken off the road.
  • Buses are a significant proportion of the diesel vehicles on our roads and more needs to be done to reduce the particulate pollution from the bus fleet.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

What is wrong with Transport For London

Cycling is a major passion of mine so I'm going to start blogging about that. In addition to the old stuff you can also expect to see posts about air pollution as well.
My new bike.

The theme which links everything is making the places we live more people friendly, healthier and better for the environment. It's also going to get a bit more London centric (sorry), but I hope this is of interest to people more widely if it gives a different perspective on the same problems in your area.

TFL - not fit for London.

So this week I had an email from a member of the London assembly regarding TFL's proposal for implementing the mayor's cycling vision. Her email and my response are below.

Caroline Pidgeon wrote:
Hi there, I am writing to update you on my work at the London Assembly on the issue of safer cycling in London. 
 Back in March across the parties we were unable to persuade the Mayor to increase the cycling budget to £148 million as we had recommended per year. However, I have continued to push to make sure that cycling is a key priority for the Mayor and he spends his budget wisely. 

Last week we quizzed Peter Hendy, the Commissioner at Transport for London, about how the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling would be implemented.  He stated that:

·         TfL and the Boroughs lacked sufficient expertise to start multiple projects. Their approach will be to focus on a handful of projects and learn as they go.
·         By starting with three projects in outer London, known as “mini Holland’s” TfL hopes they will be able to test what interventions work and hopefully inspire other boroughs to try similar measures.  There will be a competition between the Boroughs to become one of these pilot projects.
·         Cycle Superhighways are likely to change from being mainly on TfL roads to more use of Borough roads.

 I am now drafting my monthly questions for the Mayor.  I will be asking about a dangerous junction at Raleigh Gardens, a timetable for implementing the Mayor’s Cycling Vision and details of how improvements will be measured.  If there are other issues or questions that you would like me to put to the Mayor please do let me know. 

With best wishes,
Caroline Pidgeon AM

This made me pretty mad, TFL sound like complete amateurs, so I replied:

Dear Caroline,

Thanks for continuing to push this.

Please could you ask them why they are embarking on this project without sufficient expertise.
'Learning as we go' & testing implies trial and error. Given that this is nothing ground breaking I don't see why tax payers should pay for errors and cyclists should have to cycle on the inadequate infrastructure it will create.

Their catchphrase 'mini Hollands' suggest that they would not need to look very far to find some people who really understand this stuff and have been doing it for years. You can go over on the boat from Harwich for less than fifty quid (including taking your bike).

I suspect what they want to do is see if they can get away with half measures, like they did with the first super highways, which they are now going to have to re visit.

Please do not let TFL off the hook. Promising to learn sounds a bit hollow when past failures have been widely predicted by cycling experts and time & time again completely inadequate schemes are put up for consultation (and sometimes built). TFL have failed to deliver on previous bike initiatives & mostly failed to implement previous standards through lack of understanding and, to put it bluntly, because they don't take cycling seriously.

Cycle friendly design is nothing new to London so their inability to learn up to this point is not an excuse, it's a shocking admission of failure from a group who claim to be transport experts.

I suggest that the easiest and cheapest way to move forwards is to bring in outside help. I may be cynical but leaving TFL to learn is throwing good money after bad.
Sorry for the long email, hope it's not too shouty, keep up the good work!


P.s - I think air pollution is also a really big issue which seems to be going under the political radar, if you could bring this up with the mayor too it would be really appreciated because it is a huge health issue.

Note: Their own guidance which suggests a minimum bike lane of 1.5m seems to have been completely disregarded up to this point, so they can not claim they are struggling to implement new standards - they are struggling to implement any standards for bikes.

Anyway, it turns out I'm not the only one worried about TFL: http://departmentfortransport...tfl-starting-from-scratch and http://aseasyasridingabike...conflict-between-lorries-and-bicycles/

I think Londoners should know how their money is being wasted!

I've also had a really worrying email about air pollution this week which I'll post up - it's not a teaser, I genuinely don't expect anyone to read this far.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Future Buildings - Green technology round-up

I've realised February has almost come and gone without any posts so here are some thoughts I've had on green technology & it's limitations.

High air tightness

The benefits of improved air tightness for energy efficiency are clear - less hot air lost and less cold air for the heating system to warm up. Air tightness is also key if you want mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. However with increased air tightness there may need to be changes in the specification of materials or the design of houses.

Most older houses leak like sieves, which can be a life saver if your boiler starts giving off carbon monoxide. However that's not the only situation where air tightness could cause a problem, there are several sources of gases which could be harmful:
  • Heating: gas leaks or carbon monoxide.
  • Construction, including: Fumes from carpet glues & paints, formaldehyde from panel products and plasticisers from PVC (causing hormonal problems in children).
  • Household chemicals: cleaning chemicals, oil paints, home darkrooms etc.
In addition I think there are some new situations which could be created by highly air tight buildings relying on mechanical ventilation. What happens:
  • If there is a need for increased ventilation due to paint/cleaning fumes etc? 
  • If there is a power cut in the middle of the night when you are asleep? 
  • Where the ventilation/power is turned off and the house is empty & sealed could harmful gasses build up, or oxygen to be depleted by biological processes - similar to the hazards encountered in confined underground spaces.
I think these are all solvable problems but it may require changes to building design:
  • More careful specification of materials to avoid ones which give off fumes.
  • Different cleaning chemicals and avoiding hobby chemicals such as oil paints in favour of cleaner alternatives.
  • A re-think of the place of gas in the home, with a preference to install gas devices externally (if at all) rather than internally.
The whole sealed house approach assumes people won't just leave the windows open - usually the preferred method of getting fresh air, even in the winter. Personally I don't like this kind of sealed box & mechanical ventilation approach to buildings but would prefer some kind of half way house which allows some trickle ventilation at windows. The alternative could be using local ventilation heat exchange at the windows, passive or fan assisted.

Off topic - A quick note on Carbon Monoxide:

This is an invisible odourless gas which regularly kills people despite alarms being widely available (for instance a dual smoke & CO alarm for £30). I know someone who had a lucky escape and someone who worked with someone who didn't. Low levels cause you to feel ill, tell tale sign is that you feel better quickly after getting fresh air. High levels can mean you lose conciousness quite quickly. Although regularly servicing your boiler should help, it's worth having the added reassurance of an alarm. 

Electricity demand balancing

Openenergi (previously RLtec) technology balances electricity demand to supply using remote control of devices where energy use can be deferred. Effectively the opposite to matching supply to demand using fossil fuels (gas turbines) as is widespread currently.

This is a great idea and potentially very cost effective as it simply is about controlling devices intelligently and the rewards can be shared with the energy users. It is well suited to developing electricity grids with significant amounts of power delivered by either renewables or nuclear. I can see this getting in to people's homes too once smart meters are rolled out. An example would be making laptops run off batteries for a short while during peak demand - Toshiba already have something in this ilk with their 'peak shifting' eco utility, but this doesn't link to real time grid information so it is of limited use.

I think this is even more of a winner than a previous top pick MCT turbines who are now part of Siemens. I expect in 2020 electricity demand balancing is going to be big in the commercial sector, and in 20 years it will be everywhere.
Horizontal axis turbines

Vertical axis wind turbines

Quiet Revolution used to sell vertical axis wind turbines, which looked nice but lacked cost effectiveness compared to traditional turbines. The key issue was that they could only work well in very windy locations (coast/on hills) but their key selling point (quieter) was usually not such an issue in those locations. In the city locations where the turbines were recommended for their looks and low noise, it turned out they didn't do much and there were issues of ongoing maintenance.

Vertical axis turbine
It appears that the company is losing it's USP and selling traditional, more effective, propeller type turbines made in in the far east. It's probably a good tack, I have a feeling the small wind industry is going to have a hard time staying a mass market product when value for money is in the spotlight and the initial over-enthusiasm & subsidies are gone. Far too many small turbines were erected in places they were never likely to be effective.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

House prices update

I last wrote about the housing market 18 months ago and in 2013 things look quite similar to how they did back in 2011. In fact, the past three years have all had stable house prices and consistently low transaction volumes. Now it's time to see how my predictions worked out and make some new ones.
House prices (£) and number of transactions (Land Registry data)

Predictions from 2011

I think prices will fall over the next year, maybe a few percent. However with inflation running towards 5%, real house prices are going to take a hit even if nothing happens.
Over the subsequent year house prices fell about 0.5% and inflation was 3.7% (RPI). My prediction was too gloomy, with house prices holding up better and inflation falling somewhat. However, overall it got the main gist: little movement & prices outstripped by inflation, so I think that's a reasonable effort!

Where are we now

More recently there has been a small rebound, however inflation continues to run ahead of prices.

The house price to earnings ratio is currently around 5.1, against a historical average closer to 4.2 (according to Nationwide). However with historically low interest rates this does not seem likely to be an important factor in the short term.

To me it seems that there is less obsession with house prices & making a fast buck. There is evidence that buyers are making sensible compromises on location to find more affordable accommodation - cheaper places near jobs seeing strong sales.


For the foreseeable future I expect the unwinding of the 2007 bubble to continue in a similar way:

  • Inflation rising faster than house prices & continuing to erode savings.
  • No significant changes to the supply of homes to buy or rent.
  • Low rates on mortgages.
I'm feeling optimistic on house prices so I'm guessing house price rises of 1% supported by cheap lending over the next year. However betting on the uncharacteristic consistency of the housing market would probably be foolish!

Time to buy a house?

My previous post was about the buying a house in London, so obviously I don't think it's a bad idea. However the reason for this is not house prices, it's about inflation.

The housing market is unpredictable and although London defies gravity year after year, there are significant affordability & lending issues. The big positives right now are the extremely low interest rates on long term fixed rate mortgages, some barely above inflation. My guess is over the next 5 years:
  • House prices will decline in real terms, but this will be mitigated by inflation eating away at mortgages, helping to protect the equity built up.
  • Savings will gradually lose value to inflation due to the policies of the Bank of England.

So although I don't think there's a fast buck to be made, if you can find somewhere affordable & nice, which you're happy to live with for 5-10 years, now seems like a reasonable time to buy. This is doubly so for people with significant savings who can access low rate mortgages fixed for 5 years.  

Unfortunately for those shelling out on rent, escaping the rental trap is still a case of needing money to save money.