My campaign to improve air quality in Chiswick

Guest blog by Mat Smith

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mat, I’m a millennial, and I live in Chiswick. I plan to see Chiswick into the 2080s. Given my age, health, and family history, it’s not an unreasonable expectation to be alive in 2080, but why Chiswick? Let me explain.

I live with my partner and child in a small but comfortable third floor apartment in an old house overlooking Chiswick High Road. We also run a couple of businesses on the High Road. Like many young families living in Chiswick, we are not from a poor background by any means, nor were we brought up dripping in wealth. During my teens, my family dined-out twice per month (Harvester, Sunday evening, since you asked, and yes I was mad for the bacon bits at the salad bar). And now we’re slightly grown-up, we both work very hard, long hours on our various enterprises to stay afloat. We have strong family connections with Chiswick. Our respective families, coincidentally, set up shop in the 1930s – Anna’s grandfather ran a leather luggage factory called Revelation Luggage on Power Road, and my grandfather, a conscientious objector, made batteries and repaired cars in a little workshop around the back of Chiswick High Road during the war.

Personally I love the busy, metropolitan atmosphere of Chiswick High Road, and its proximity to the more bucolic scenes along the river which are only a few minutes cycle away. And that’s the context to what I’d call a deep connection that we have with Chiswick. This extends to a sense of protectiveness we both feel over our locality. So that’s why I want to stay here for the foreseeable. But there’s a fly in the ointment, isn’t there? We are told it’s a silent killer, the biggest controversy in public health today, the one thing that affects our health that we cannot ourselves control.

Pollution.

Photographs by Ian Wylie, Marianne Mahaffey and Anna Kunst. Bottom right – Mat and partner Anna

As you are no doubt aware Chiswick High Road has a very big problem with pollution, and this directly affects me and my family. We have taken measures to reduce the effect of pollution within the home, and have taken professional advice. But there’s very little we can do within our own four walls. If we leave the windows open, polluted air from the High Road comes in, and if we leave the windows closed, this air re-circulates around the house. Our spot really is heavily polluted. We overlook a junction where cars, vans, lorries, and buses are stationary for most of the time. On sunny days, or days where traffic levels are particularly high, we wake up coughing. All three of us. It really is that bad.

I have strong lungs. No asthma. And with a clean bill of health, no family history that might affect my health in such a way that I cannot control, and an active interest in keeping ahead of any potential health problems in the future, I feel confident in my life expectancy. With this one exception. I was told, over the phone, by the gentleman who wrote Hounslow Council’s “Air Quality Action Plan” that the three biggest factors affecting the quality of the air that I breathe in the street directly outside my home are as follows, in order of impact:

1/ Pollution from road vehicles
2/ Pollution from Heathrow
3/ Pollution from private buildings – of which residential is only a small proportion

Dr Holland went on to explain that over the next few years, as old cars and vans are replaced by new ones that must conform to stricter regulations, the order of impact will change and Heathrow will become the front runner. This would be true even if the Heathrow expansion were not to forge ahead. Pollution from industry will remain in third place.

Pollution. Facts vs Politics. Claims and counter claims whizz around the debate on how to reduce pollution. And invariably these claims are all put-forward as “facts”, whereas the reality is that they are all driven by individuals’ ideals.

More cycling – the answer to pollution?

If you cycle very often then you are far more likely to seize on the argument of “modal shift”; provide infrastructure for cyclists and the choice between driving or cycling becomes far more balanced towards cycling, which results in fewer cars on the road for those rat runs, which reduces stop-start – as well as the total volume of pollutants shoved out into the air – and in turn vastly improves air quality. If what Dr Holland says is true, then whilst the “modal shift” argument may be a valid one in the debate about improving air quality, this won’t be the main thing that reduces pollution from the road, and therefore stops me waking up coughing in the morning. Not to mention I’m going to have to lay down in front of the bulldozers when they build Heathrow…

Back to road users, though. This feels like something we can actually do something about. The counter-claim to “modal shift” being brought about by proposed new cycle infrastructure is that when you reduce space for driving, this increases congestion, which increases journey time, which of course means the total accumulated volume of pollutants entering the air increases. Because of these claims and counter-claims – both of which may be considered to be fact and argued ad nauseum – the cycling debate must be seen as a small player in the campaign for cleaner air, rather than the silver bullet.

So although road infrastructure improvements go hand-in-hand with long-term planning for clean air, it’s all too easy to allow those who govern our roads to treat such improvements as a tick box exercise in the implementation of their clean air strategy. In short: we need to aim higher than installing cycle lanes, if we are to achieve local roads where residents can wake up in the morning without coughing.

To be continued…

If you would like to get in touch with me with a view to taking part in discussions about air pollution in Chiswick please contact me via info@chiswickcalendar.co.uk

Mat Smith is a photographer who lives and works in Chiswick and tweets under the name of Chiswick Chap @chiswickish