Environment

Meet the woman who's making your Tube journey safer from air pollution

Some lines on the London Underground have levels of air pollution seven times higher than what the WHO deems safe

Tanya Beri

The app will be released later this year. (Image: Tanya Beri/CAIR London)

“The Tube is a key method of getting in and around the city – but it’s not healthy for the people using it,” says Tanya Beri.

A born-and-bred Londoner, Beri was appalled when she found out how polluted the capital’s most famous form of transport has become, and how unaware most people are of the dangers. So she decided to do something about it. 

Transport for London says the Tube is used by up to five million people per day, making it one of the world’s busiest urban transport systems, as well as the oldest subway network.

But, almost all of them are breathing in at least two times the amount of harmful particles deemed acceptable by the World Health Organisation, according to a 2019 Financial Times investigation, and seven times as much if you’re on the Central line.

“I was shocked that this wasn’t public knowledge, because the PM2.5 levels were so high,” Beri tells The Big Issue, referring to the minuscule particles of dust, smoke or dirt given off by engine exhausts, brake pads, burning fossil fuels, and heating homes.

Her solution is Cair London, an app designed to help Londoners find routes less affected by air pollution.

The app, which uses data collated by Cair London itself, is still in development and will be available for download this year, but once finished commuters will be able to see which lines and Tube stops have the worst pollution and then choose a different route that has less. 

Though the journey might not be as direct or quick, it will be better for their lungs, according to Beri.

The app doesn’t currently work in real-time but the information is “updated frequently” to ensure the “the lowest polluted route” for users, Beri says.

Beri herself experienced the effects of air pollution on the Tube. Growing up in Harrow in the capital’s suburban north-west, she spent a year travelling an hour and back to south London five days a week, taking the notoriously dirty Northern line.

She says she experienced “a recurring case of sickness” and, though the link to air pollution was not confirmed, the frequent travel on the Tube did seem significant.

“The doctors did state the key difference to my day-to-day routine was travelling on the Tube more frequently than I ever had before,” Beri says. “I’ve heard from Londoners who suffer from asthma who felt that their symptoms also got worse due to frequent travel on the deeper underground lines.”

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

A scientific paper published by researchers from King’s College London in 2019 found the air in Tube carriages is 18 times worse than the roadside air above ground. 

“When you’ve got stations across the Jubilee, Victoria, and Northern lines exceeding that safe limit, it’s a real cause for concern,” Beri says. “One of the key aims of Cair London is to provide an immediate solution for those currently concerned about travelling on the London Underground.”

Air pollution is a major issue across London and the UK, and the tube is no exception. In fact, nearly 40,000 deaths per year across the UK are thought to be linked to long-term air pollution – 9,000 of which occur in London.

The issue is not specific to London, as other cities like New York and Stockholm with “deep underground transportation networks” will also have air pollution across their public transport networks, Beri says. But, London has nearly double the number of passengers on the Tube each day compared to the New York Subway, and nearly four times more than Stockholm’s metro. 

Beri is hopeful that Cair London will enable more people to think about air pollution and use the tube in a safer way. 

“As a society, we could all do more to tackle air pollution, such as making more conscious decisions about our own contributions to it.” she says. “For instance, public transport is a fantastic way to reduce the city’s overall air pollution problem, which is why we want people to continue using it.”

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

“Fixing air pollution is not only challenging, it also won’t be resolved overnight,” she adds. “Cair London offers alternative routes that will get people where they need to go in the safest way possible, exposing them to less air pollution overall.”

The Financial Times found the deeper underground lines, such as the Central, Victoria, Northern, Bakerloo, Jubilee, and Piccadilly lines, had higher levels of air pollution in comparison to the District, Metropolitan, Circle, and Hammersmith & City lines – all of which have tunnels at or just below ground level.

In a statement to the Big Issue, Lilli Matson, Transport for London’s (TfL) chief safety, health, and environment editor said: “Safety is our top priority and we have been working for many years to reduce Tube dust, and will continue to do so.”

TfL say the air underground is perfectly safe. (Image: Tanya Beri/CAIR London)

She said monitoring by TfL has shown that the levels of dust on the Underground “remain well below limits set by the health and safety executive” and most of the network are below the levels recommended by the Institute of Occupational Medicine.

Matson added: “However, we are not complacent and have developed a number of innovative new cleaning regimes to reduce Tube dust further. This includes the use of industrial backpack dust cleaners, which are one part of our multi-million pound Tube cleaning programme.”

Matson also previously told the Financial Times that the air on the Tube is “completely safe”.

Beri doesn’t agree. “The Tube is the most environmentally friendly and cost-efficient way to travel around the city, but it is not healthy for the people using it,” she says.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back
Rewilding

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'
beavers
Environment

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent
Environment

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know