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European Smog Highlights Desperate Need For EVs, Better Mass Transit Systems

Last week's pictures of European landmarks lost in dense smog brought to mind similar images from Britain's post-war years, when the 'Pea-souper' blanketed the city and, as well as affecting visibility, directly impacted on the health of millions of Londoners. The British Government acted to improve things by passing the Clean Air Act, and in doing so solved the problem. Now the problems are returning.

Air quality is worsening and transport policy is to blame, not just in London but across Europe. Visit cities across the continent and you will smell that mix of air, diesel particulate and two-stroke emissions that, to a seasoned traveller, indicates exactly which part of Europe they are in. The reason? PM10 particulates, which the World Health Organisation measures and sets safe levels for, levels that are exceeded in the current smogs descending on Europe.

Paris has enacted its traffic control measures for the second time in a year, restricting entry to the city for cars with odd and even numbered registration plates to different days of the week. Hand in hand with this measure it has made public transport free, to provide an alternate method of commuting for the millions of Parisians who travel into the heart of the city each day.

This measure is welcome, however it is being used as a short term fix, reducing traffic and particulates, for a long term problem relating to the poor planning of traffic in the city.

The time has come for a strategic solution.

That means an integrated transport solution, which does away with ageing and dirty diesel cars (those which don't meet the Euro 5 emissions standard) and provides a long-term alternative.

EVs make a big difference. Not only in terms of reducing local emissions, but also on the national trade gap - most European countries are importers of oil. Cutting millions of gallons of oil imports cuts billions of Euros from the national debt. The financial aid provided to potential EV buyers needs to be strengthened, and capital investment into providing a better charging network made. This is the sort of endeavour that the European Central Bank should be keen to support.

There remains the problem of the bulk of city commuters who cannot afford to replace their cars with new EVs, no matter what the government subsidy. That these are usually the oldest, least well maintained and most polluting of vehicles just exacerbates the problem.

With public transport systems creaking at the seams already, pushing these drivers onto trains, trams or buses is not going to fix the problem. 

Fixing the pricing difference between diesel and petrol would be a start though. Tax breaks for diesel make it up to 20% cheaper than petrol in European countries. Reversing that discrepancy would provide funds to upgrade public transport and encourage more commuters to use it.

More innovative solutions to public transport need to be considered, either to improve performance and allow more public transport vehicles access - such as the Northern Busway implementation in Auckland - or by improving the quality of the service itself, like the Leap service in San Francisco.

The continued pollution of the air that we breathe cannot and should not be lightly tolerated. With elections forthcoming in key European states over the next two years now is the time to make this an election issue.