Barbican: The Rise and Rapid Fall of the UK’s 1st Zero-Emission-Zone: Beech Street

The short-lived story of The UK’s first Zero-Emission-Zone, the Barbican’s very own Beech Street.

Green Sky Thinking behind a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ): Beech Street

In an effort to enhance the air quality in the Square Mile, The City of London Corporation backed plans to open the UK’s first 24/7 zero-emission roadway.

Beech Street, which runs through much of the Barbican Estate, will be restricted to zero-emission vehicles, bikes, and walkers from Spring 2020.

Emergency vehicles, access to the Beech Street parking lots, and waste collection and deliveries will all be granted exceptions. The alterations have no effect on Bus Route 153, which goes down Beech Street and is entirely electric.

The experimental traffic rule will be in effect for a maximum of 18 months, during which time the impact on air quality and traffic will be tracked.

Local Planning Jargon

For those not familiar with the lexicon of local planning, the Local Authority introduced the Zero-Emission-Zone (ZEZ) on Beech Street by way of implementing an Experimental Traffic Order (ETO). The ETO was to run for 18 months. It became life in March 2020, with enforcement via penalty charge notice just over 3-4 months later.

A ZEZ in a Petrol World

Being the first of anything is usually a challenge in itself and by all accounts, the 18-month trial of the Beech Street ZEZ is no exception. If you are a pedestrian what was there not to like, reduce pollution, and congestion and have a nice quiet street. It is after all a busy route.

The challenge is not so much around winning the argument of reducing pollution but more to do with the ability to balance that alongside a living population. We are after all in the very early bronze age stage of transitioning away from the combustion engine.

The elephant in the room with all these schemes is the impact it has on those who have no other current options. The charging infrastructure is not quite there yet for a total switch over to Zero-Emission Vehicles, the battery range is not quite there yet, and the low cost of ownership is also not there.

Let’s not forget, there is a sizeable chunk of the population who does not buy new cars, so the secondhand market for Zero Emission vehicles is also not quite there yet.

Change is a balanced calculation between Cost vs Benefit analysis

It is like Network Rail removing the tracks and asking the train operators to run maglev trains instead of Zuma trains. On one spreadsheet the benefit to the rail operator is the solution to rail congestion, on another spreadsheet the cost is the economy tanks as there are no maglev trains in the UK, and no crews to operate and fix them. A bit extreme example but you get the idea.

With Beech street, the benefit was there, for those on the exemption list at least (Bus, Refuse disposal, specific residents with specific allocated car parking space) or owners of a ZEZ vehicle and those who only use the pavement.

The cost? well there was no actual analysis to capture that view it seems, or if there was I could not locate it, and there it would seem is the seed of the project’s eventual derailment.

“Spinning the roulette wheel and its always on red”

Managed Outcome vs Surprised Push Back

The derailing of the ETO

One of the key areas of frustration from the resident’s viewpoint was the lack of engagement and public consultation. Residents for example found out about the ETO for the ZEZ (acronym overload) via the press. Possibly not ideal, the error was noted and an apology was forth. It is more than just a missed step, no engagement means no data, no data means no idea what the cost is, the fundamental input of Project management.

This also highlights one of the finer points, that the ETO’s primary purpose was to gather real-world data, at the end of the ETO process the evidence i.e. ‘that data’ is used to move to the final stage of making the ETO either permanent or to get it scrapped.

There appear to have been some gaps on the data gathering side, a significant period of the ETO was run without any data gathering. The reason in part seems to be the fact the country was in the depths of a national lockdown and perhaps the workforce was allocated to other duties.

This does, however, beg the question, why would you run an ETO during a period of time of a national reduction of traffic i.e. a pandemic? Data collection either presents low pollution and congestion due to a lack of road users or it gets skewed the other way as more residents are in the area requiring more home deliveries. Either way, the ETO is not a reflection of what is normal life.

The other area that came up for public criticism in the early stages was the enforcement of the scheme by way of penalty charge notices. The issue here is the lack of clear information on trigger times.

I guess to be fair to city planners, there was a pandemic, and planning change is like steering a big ship, the process is not that quick to react or change tact.

Concluding thoughts in the ZEZ at Beech Street

The ETO (ZEZ) at Beech Street seems to have failed on a number of things, none of which seems to be related to the blue sky ideals of improving air pollution/congestion. Was it a road too far at this moment in time on Earth’s journey to replace the combustion engine? was it a good idea to make this change during the challenges of a pandemic? should more attention have been spent on the process.

The general direction of travel is emissions, with the expansion of the ULEZ by 18 times its original size generating £600,000 a day in revenue from some estimates, money that now flows into the transport system coffers and not the local economy. No doubt one day Beech Street will again be a ZEZ, have the lessons of the ETO been learned though?

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Where is Beech Street

Beech Street, Smithfield, City of London, Greater London, England, EC1A 4JP, United Kingdom

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