In 2006, the London newspapers carried a story about ‘Chelsea Tractors’ destroying the elegant Albert Bridge that crosses the Thames between Chelsea and Battersea Park.
The Victorian bridge had a two-tonne weight limit and Kensington and Chelsea (K&C) council seemingly led the press to believe that a cavalcade of Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes were undermining the very structure of this landmark.
Back then, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London were in full cry against the SUV, targeting them as "polluting". Problem is, CO2 is not pollution in the sense that it is locally damaging to health. London’s real problem (like many other UK cities) is with pollution such as the particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines.
Even though the EU threatened the UK with mega-fines for breaking EU air quality regulations, the politicians tied themselves in knots trying to demonise the SUV and CO2 emissions while ignoring the belching diesel exhausts causing genuine health problems.
Anyway, I smelt a large rat when I read the story about Albert Bridge. So I rang the K&C press office. I asked how many of the overweight vehicles crossing Albert Bridge were commercial and how many were private? The press officer didn’t know but said he would get back to me. He then said all the traffic engineers were "on holiday" and then sent me a text to say they didn’t know the figures.
That was because the heavy vehicles actually damaging Albert Bridge were the good old London black cabs. Empty, they weigh 1.8 tonnes, which is thanks to the old-school ladder frame chassis. With a tank of fuel, a driver and a passenger, one would easily weigh over two tonnes. And these 25,000 ageing drones aren’t just pounding the streets; they are responsible for at least 20 per cent of central London’s pollution problems, a situation made worse by these vehicles covering 230 million miles a year.
And as these warhorses age and run up the miles, the tired engines blow out staggering amounts of pollution. Who hasn’t witnessed the clouds of soot as the cabbie puts his boot down?
This week, with manufacturer Manganese Bronze sliding into administration, it looks like the end of the line for these iconic but very crude vehicles. The likely end of production is a tragedy for the Coventry workers, but these machines are past their sell-by date, undermined by the new Mercedes cab, and would have probably been killed off anyway by the arrival of next year’s Nissan black cab.
When Chinese car maker Geely bought 20 per cent of Manganese Bronze in 2007, the British should have insisted on new investment to update the cab, not least switching to LPG as a fuel, which could have made the cab one of the least polluting vehicles on the streets. It’s too late now. More importantly, the capital needs to think long and hard about the best way of hurrying the majority of these ageing hulks off the roads as quickly as possible.