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Projects | London's Waterways

LondonUnlocked, New ProjectsEditor

Reprinted below in full is an article by Amy Reed for the BBC on the usefulness of London's Waterways. This is a fact which LondonUnlocked has been advocating for some time, and we highly recommend the conclusions of Ms Reed's article. ----

Waterways 'have the golden touch' VIEWPOINT, by Amy Reed

The organisers of the 2012 Olympic Games need to use London's waterways if they are to meet their promise of staging the greenest games in history, says Amy Reed. In this week's Green Room, she sets out the arguments for why moving freight by water is the most environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Every four years, the world focuses its gaze on one city for two weeks, as it plays host to the planet's largest peace-time event - the Olympic Games. Competitors at the first games, held in 776 BC, would not recognise the modern day equivalent. They would marvel at the Herculean effort needed to stage the global event, for which preparations begin seven years before.

In July 2005, the International Olympic Committee judged London to be the winners in the race to state the 2012 Games.

One of the central planks of the London organising committee's bid was to stage the greenest Olympics ever held, and to leave a sporting legacy for future generations.

If they are to deliver that promise, the first discipline that has to be mastered is freight transportation, but it will not be easy.

The initial building phase of the 2012 London Games will require hauling to and from the Olympics site no less than one million cubic metres of spoil, along with between 3,000 and 6,000 tonnes of aggregate each day.

We'll also have to move steel and other cargoes, together with large, pre-formed structures to the site in East London.

Though these figures are nothing unusual - at least not for a project of this size - there are still some question marks about whether the largest possible volume of Olympics goods are going to be brought to the Games site on the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation available - the water.

It's a fact: shipping emits less carbon than other transport modes and this has been demonstrated by one study after another.

Sea and Water's report, The Case for Water, showed that increased water freight transportation can cut the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere by 80%.

Statistics from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show that for each tonne-km, inland shipping emits only 22 grams of carbon. Rail freight is ranked a close second-best, at 28 grams.

Road kill

The most environmentally damaging form of freight transport, which also happens often to be the default way of hauling cargo, is by road. Lorries, on average, emit 59 grams of carbon per tonne-kilometre.

Emissions from transport also pollute the air. The Department of Health estimates that between 12,000 and 24,000 deaths each year in the UK result from poor air quality.

Increased water freight transportation should be part of the solution to this problem. By moving freight by water, the amount of nitrogen oxide sent into the atmosphere is reduced by 35%, compared with road deliveries.

Shipping is, undoubtedly, the most sustainable mode of transportation. Across the globe, coastal waters and inland waterways are natural, and so their long and short-term maintenance is practically effortless. Yet just one kilometre of motorway consumes more than 100,000 tonnes of finite and precious aggregate.

By reducing our reliance upon roads for long distance movement of freight, we also diminish demand to widen existing motorways and build new, lorry-inviting roads.

Since waterways are best suited to freight traffic, they will not be clogged up by the unregulated growth of passenger traffic.

The Environment Agency has shown that the widening of roads in congested areas often only leads to short-term environmental gains, which is quickly lost as road-usage quickly increases to match the extra road capacity provided.

Unlocking the floodgates

So what is the principal barrier to increased water freight transportation? Attitude. Too many businesses opine, often incorrectly, that water freight transportation is too slow to meet their needs.

Too many environmental organisations do not even mention freight transportation in their transport or carbon-cutting agendas, despite the fact that this modal shift to water is a clear-cut solution to a pressing environmental problem.

All of this is the result a problem of perception, or a lack of any perception at all, about shipping.

Last February, the food retail giant Sainsbury's conducted a trial on the Thames, carrying food cargoes as it did regularly back in 1869.

On almost every occasion during the trial, the goods were transported more quickly on water than on their regular, heavily congested road journey.

Very recently, Tesco became the first major UK retailer to transport freight by canal, when it began moving wine by barge from Liverpool to Manchester via the Manchester Ship Canal. This will take 50 lorries off the roads each week.

But waterways are also useful when there is not as much of a hurry. Waste firm Cory Environmental transports 700,000 tonnes of rubbish each year down the Thames to Essex, avoiding 100,000 lorry journeys annually.

As businesses and environmental activists begin to become aware of the case for water freight, national and local governments can also do more to stimulate increased use of waterways and coastal routes.

They can ensure that the planning system is reformed to enable access to waterside and freight handling facilities, and allow ports to expand. They can strive to create a level playing-field between road transport and other modes, and maintain the inland waterway network.

On this front, there is some good news. Recent infrastructure investments in London by national and local authorities have made it possible to transport 1.75 million tonnes of material to the Games site by water.

If we move this much freight on the water, we can bring about C02 savings of 4,000 tonnes during construction of the Olympics sites, and an additional 440 tonnes per year thereafter.

The building period at the Olympic Park has only just begun, and there is still time to change our attitudes toward water freight transportation, and prepare to host a green games.

It is certainly a weightier task than it was back in 776 BC. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from our Olympic past, by relying once again upon that timeless, most environmentally friendly, and most sustainable mode of transportation on Earth: our coastal shipping routes and inland waterways.

Amy Reed is communications manager for Sea and Water, a UK government-funded organisation to promote the role of freight transportation by water