Yesterday the Mayor popped down to Stratford to launch the latest of his Low Emission Bus Zones. Twelve LEBZs are planned by the end of the year, with ten now in place and only two to go. The idea is to cut nitrogen dioxide levels along specific corridors (outside the central Ultra Low Emission Zone) by using less-polluting vehicles. All scheduled TfL buses travelling within an LEBZ need to meet or exceed latest Euro VI emissions standards - something which all new double decker vehicles now do. [press release][news story][map][evaluation report]
I'm particularly interested in the Stratford LEBZ because it goes past my house. In total it's five miles long and runs from Mile End station through Stratford to the edge of Ilford - an impressive distance. Essentially it's the route of the 25 bus, and now also the 425 bus, plus also a fair chunk of the 86. But numerous other bus routes impinge along the way, stopping at at least once within the zone, which means a mammoth game of vehicle upgrading and fleet swapping has been required to meet the LEBZ standard.
Nobody's ever published an accurate map to show the precise boundary of the zone, so here's my best schematic guess at which 21 bus routes are affected.
69 104 238
241 262 473
And then I wondered whether it was possible to verify that all the bus routes in the Stratford LEBZ were actually compliant, so I went for a five mile walk to take a look.
n.b. If I were a proper bus geek I wouldn't have had to go for a walk. This website lists the vehicle types used on every bus route in London, and if I knew my Streetdeck Geminis from my Enviro 400s I'd instantly know which were Euro VI compliant. Better still, this amazing website lists all the vehicles currently in operation on every London bus route and precisely where they are, so I could determine what was running on, say, route 25, without leaving home. But I am not a proper bus geek, so I did the lowbrow thing and looked to see whether there was a green symbol on the side of the bus or not.
Sometimes the green symbol says Hybrid, which means it's always been Euro VI compliant, and sometimes it just says Cleaner Air, which means it's been retrofitted after entering service. Sometimes the buses have green symbols on both sides, but sometimes it's only on one, usually the nearside, which makes it harder to spot. To ensure I had reasonable data I made sure I checked at least three buses on each route. On the main routes I saw a lot more than that.
Every vehicle on route 25 had a green symbol on the side. That's not surprising because the buses on route 25 are brand new, introduced within the last couple of months, so they must all be Euro VI compliant. Indeed it's probably this fleet of new buses which has been the trigger for Stratford's LEBZ reaching critical mass. Every vehicle on route 425 also had a green symbol on the side, which is impressive given they all had '10', '11' or 13' numberplates so must be over six years old. Retrofitting works, it seems, even on old vehicles.
Other bus routes where every vehicle had a green symbol on the side were the 58, 69, 108, 147, 238, 241, 262, 276, 308, 330, 473 and D8. I'm therefore perfectly willing to believe that these are LEBZ-friendly bus routes. All the 'New Routemasters' on route 8 were symbol-less, but they run into the Ultra Low Emission Zone so must be OK. Which just leaves routes 86, 104, 205, 325, 488 and W19 with questions to be answered...
On the 325 and the 488 two vehicles had green symbols but one didn't. On the 205 two vehicles did but three didn't. On the 104 four vehicles did but five didn't. Each of these routes is operated by a mix of vehicle types rather than one definitive model, as if picked from a stock of "whatever's available". Yesterday the 488 was operated using vehicles of four different ages (2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017), and the 104 by a dog's breakfast of six (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013). It seems likely that some of these stand-ins won't have been emissions-compliant, but I can't be 100% sure.
What I might be able to prove is that the 86 failed the emissions test yesterday. Almost all the vehicles I saw on route 86 were fine, until suddenly this old beast turned up.
It has an '03' numberplate, making it sixteen years old, and unsurprisingly it didn't have a green symbol on the side. I wondered if it was a one-off, but the next 86 to turn up was similarly ancient and unmarked. Both of these vehicles run on the routeregularly. Age isn't necessarily a barrier, because I also saw a 2004 vehicle and a 2005 vehicle with green stickers on the side, so they must have been tweaked. But neither of the two unmarked 2003 vehicles appear to have been upgraded (unless you know better), so that's a fail.
The W19 was an intriguing anomaly. I saw seven different W19s altogether, all single deckers with '66' numberplates, so barely over two years old. But not one of the seven had a green symbol on the side, making it the least obviously compliant of all the routes I checked. Might there be a rogue route inside the Stratford LEBZ that nullified the Mayor's grand claim? Well no, I've since done some research to discover that these vehicles are Enviro200s which the manufacturer says are indeed emissions-compliant, so all is well. Sheesh this is murky and complicated.
I also wondered precisely why the LEBZ terminated where it did, so looked to see which additional bus routes made the roads at each end non-compliant. At the Mile End end the 339 seemed to be the problem, otherwise the LEBZ would have rolled all the way down to Whitechapel. And at the Ilford end I didn't see a single green symbol on routes 150, 167, 364, 296, 396 or 462, suggesting that far less retrofitting has been going on in outer London and vehicles are generally older. That's the problem with targets - by improving a handful of corridors you leave the others behind.
In conclusion (if you're still with me)...
» Low Emission Bus Zones are woolly concepts, which probably make sense within TfL Towers but haven't been fully explained to the public.
» Welcome though Low Emission Bus Zones are, huge areas of London are still by default High Emission Bus Zones.
» You can't identify a Low Emission bus route from its vehicles because they've been inconsistently labelled.
» It is not the case that every bus inside a Low Emission Bus Zone has low emissions, because sometimes a garage sends out old vehicles to make up the numbers.
» On the day the Mayor launched the Stratford LEBZ, it wasn't fully compliant.
» Data gathered within earlier LEBZs reveals big cuts in NOx emissions, so hopefully Stratford's air will improve too.
» Fewer of our buses are killing us, hurrah, but the problem's nowhere near fixed yet.