Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
There are plenty of surprises in this new clean air ranking, including that London and Paris are doing a better job of addressing air quality than Amsterdam is.
London is going up, Berlin is going down. Stockholm is staying steady and Lisbon is failing. A brand new set of European city clean air rankings have just been published—and they've managed to deliver a few surprises. The European Commission-sponsored study looked at policies promoting clean air (rather than air quality per se) in 23 E.U. cities. Part of the awkwardly named "Soot-Free for the Climate!" campaign, the rankings dredge up some familiar names—Zurich, Copenhagen, and Vienna are unsurprisingly ranked as the top three cities—but also partially shake up the E.U.'s green reputation.
For a start, sprawling, sooty London and Paris both managed to outperform compact, cycling-friendly Amsterdam. The latter city is stuck further down the list for its failure to implement a Low Emissions Zone for private vehicles. The worst performing city, meanwhile, was not in cash-strapped Southern Europe, but in the heart of the E.U.'s wealthier North, in a town that, by European capital standards, is barely a city at all. Luxembourg City scored lowest of all for its failure to meaningfully combat the dominance of cars. It's not that the 107,000-resident city has no public transit—it does and it has been promoting it—but more that its economy is overwhelmingly fueled by car commuters. With far more jobs than residents, workers drive in daily from the rest of the country and also from Belgium and France.
The study's highest rising and lowest falling cities can be found in the U.K. London improved the most, rising from an F to a C-. With better emission controls on buses and taxis, the city has also just extended its Low Emissions Zone to include construction machinery. The number of London walkers, cyclists, and public transit users is growing, while private car use continues to fall. Meanwhile the transit network and number of cycle paths is expanding—crucially for the latter, London is now developing its first properly protected lanes for cyclists.
Up in Scotland, things aren't going as well. Glasgow has dropped furthest of all in the rankings, from a D to an F. The city has postponed the introduction of a Low Emissions Zone, but that's not all. It also failed to legislate on particulate filters or to introduce congestion charging.
All those F's probably sting a lot, especially given that the E.U. is seen globally as being ahead of the game when it comes to walkability and public transit. But these scores could be partly attributable to the source. This is an E.U.-sponsored project, but the study's results were put together by the German non-profit Friends of the Earth. Rightly for an organization trying to push cities towards greener practices, they've set the bar extremely high—failure to score more than 60 percent on their scale means you fail. Still the rankings are a valuable record of the exact points where Europe's policymakers are succeeding and failing. You can read a full explanation of each city’s ranking here.