How low can they go? Cities are taking action to reduce air pollution and save lives

Air pollution is a bigger killer in Europe than obesity or alcohol: nearly half a million Europeans die each year from its effects.

Particulate matter (a complex mixture of extremely small dust particles and liquid droplets) and nitrogen dioxide (an invisible, but foul smelling gas) are particularly harmful to health.  As the New Scientist has explained:

“…nitrogen dioxide lowers birthweight, stunts lung growth in children and increases the risk of respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Particulate pollutants like soot cause a wider range of problems, including lung cancer.”

Motor vehicles are the main source of these emissions in urban areas. For this reason, European Union regulations introduced in 2010 set down that nitrogen oxide should average no more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre over a year. These limits are regularly breached. By the end of January this year, London had reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. Scientists say that even these limits are unsafe: the 30,000 deaths each year attributed to particulate pollution are due to exposure levels below the legal limit.

Getting into the zone

Many local authorities have been trying to tackle the issue by getting the most polluting vehicles out of their city centres.  As Traffic Technology International has noted:

“From Athens to Aberdeen, and from London to Ljubljana, there is an eclectic smorgasbord of initiatives with over 200 low emission zones (LEZ) around Europe excluding more polluting vehicles, and some cities employing road-user charging to deter vehicles from entering.”

In the UK, Glasgow is set to become Scotland’s first low emissions zone, while Oxford could become the world’s first zero emissions zone, which would exclude all non-electric vehicles from the city centre by 2035.

T Time in London

London has adopted especially ambitious goals to clean up the capital’s air. As of October 2017, older vehicles driving in London between 7am and 6pm have needed either to meet the minimum toxic emission standards (Euro 4/IV for both petrol and diesel vehicles and Euro 3 for motorised tricycles and quadricycles) or to pay an extra daily charge of £10.00 (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge).

Air quality campaigners have welcomed this “T Charge”, but not everyone is happy. The Federation of Small Businesses has voiced concern that the charge will have a negative impact on small and micro-businesses that are already struggling with high property, employment and logistics costs. Shaun Bailey, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly, has described the T Charge – and the mayor’s plan to bring forward to 2019 the launch of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) – as “vanity projects” that will have little effect on air quality.

National demands and local plans

London’s T Charge is one way of tackling air pollution, but there are other methods, such as retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel and supporting cyclists. Some UK cities are already taking action, while in Germany and Belgium, even more radical ideas are being mooted.

Last summer, the UK government set out its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The document made it clear that local authorities have a leading role to play in achieving improvements in air quality.

By the end of this month, local authorities were expected to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue, with final plans to be submitted by December. The government promised support for councils, including a £255m Implementation Fund to help them prepare and deliver their plans, and the opportunity to bid for additional money from a Clean Air Fund.

It was hoped that these measures would lower the poisonous emissions. However, last month the High Court ruled that the government’s approach to tackling pollution was not sufficient, and ordered urgent changes. Even if the subsequent plan is accepted, many feel that the only sure way to solve the problem is to eliminate traffic from our cities. Others counter that this will damage the economy.

The battle of Britain’s air quality has only just begun.

Our previous articles on air quality include:

Walk this way- the benefits of walking for people and cities

In a quality city, a person should be able to live their entire life without a car, and not feel deprived” – Paul Bedford, City of Toronto Planning Director (2014)

Improvements to the design and layouts of streets and cities can have a significant impact on encouraging more of us to walk. However, many people living in cities face a significant number of barriers to being physically active where they live, particularly in relation to walking. Pathways and public spaces such as parks and throughways are often unappealing, unsafe, congested, traffic filled, noisy or for some completely inaccessible, which leads to a reliance on vehicular travel and a reluctance to be physically active within the city environment.

Walkable environments consider not only the physical design of routes, but also features and facilities that are inclusive of the widest possible range of needs; for example, places for people to rest along their journeys (including well designed seats and benches), accessible toilet facilities, signage and street design that is sensitive to a range of needs and that can help with orientation and wayfinding. However, the benefits are clear across the board when it comes to trying to make our cities more walkable (and as a result healthier). This blog post outlines a few of these potential benefits, and considers how planners can get involved in realising some of them through effective planning and design in their own cities.

Social benefits
Safe, walkable, environments can provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to stay socially connected and engaged. This can be particularly helpful in communities with a lot of children, older people or vulnerable adults. Having areas that are known to be safe can help to encourage people to leave their homes, reducing the impact of loneliness and social isolation, and improving their sense and feeling of community in their local area, which in turn can help with health and wellbeing and community cohesion.

Health benefits
Walking is good for us! In August this year a survey by Public Health England revealed that four in 10 middle-aged adults fail to manage even one brisk 10-minute walk a month. This despite research showing that walking each day can rapidly reduce risk of health conditions such as stroke and heart attack. Promoting active lifestyles through encouraging walking has also been shown to help tackle the growing issue of obesity, particularly among younger people. Walking can also be good for mental health, particularly when it is done as a group. Increasingly, walking interventions are being prescribed as part of social prescription initiatives to help people regain health, fitness and confidence. But in order for these to be effective, spaces and suitable environments for walking need to be made available.

Environmental benefits
For many cities, London, Manchester and Glasgow included, congestion and air pollution are major issues. Creating walkable cities, and encouraging walking, cycling and other more environmentally friendly modes of transport can have a significant impact on the levels of pollution within an area. Reducing vehicle use can also have an impact on noise, water, thermal and light pollution in our cities too. Some attempts are being made to reduce the level of pollution in our cities – vehicles in central London have been subject to a congestion charge for a number of years. However, recent developments and attempts to reduce the high levels of air pollution in the city have led to the introduction of the “T-Charge”. It has been suggested that the money raised from this charge could be used to fund green transport initiatives, and this includes improving cycle and walkways and making streets more easy to navigate on foot.

Economic benefits
Walkable spaces can act as a catalyst for local economic vitality, regeneration and tourism. Research has shown that improving public spaces, and creating an environment which encourages more people to walk safely, (and free from the noise, smell and feelings of claustrophobia that can come with high levels of car traffic) has a significant and positive impact on businesses, resulting in people spending more time, but also more money in shops and town centres.

Creating walkable cities: what can be done to help
Planners and city officials are increasingly aware of the need to promote more open, safe and accessible public spaces in new development areas. However, some cities have already implemented practices that could be taken forward in the future. Organisations like Living Streets have produced road maps and blueprints of how cities can use planning to improve public spaces, make them walker friendly and reduce reliance on vehicles. Consultancies like Arup have also produced research on the benefits of creating “walkable cities” and in 2014 RTPI launched their own report on the benefits of planning for “healthier cities” (which includes provision for making cities more walkable). In 2017 the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a briefing on transforming public spaces to promote physical activity in cities. There are a number of ways in which planners and city planning teams can have a positive impact on promoting change to encourage more walking in our cities including:

  • Create walkable neighbourhoods – In Melbourne a “local connectivity plan” was introduced in 2014. The plan was used to build a network of neighbourhoods which had social, leisure and retail facilities within a 20 minute walk of people’s homes.
  • Prioritise walking, and “walkable spaces” in development and regeneration plans – The mayor of London appointed a walking and cycling commissioner in 2017, whose role is to make walking and cycling easier and safer across the capital. The mayor’s new ‘healthy streets’ approach is a commitment to a system of healthy streets and strategies that will help Londoners use cars less and walk, cycle and use public transport more.
  • Make walking safe – Designing walkways and footpaths that incorporate wide, well lit pathways, well signposted and nicely designed and maintained routes has been shown to be one of the main factors in encouraging people to walk more within their local area.
  • Make walking easy (and fun) – Go Jauntly is a new walking app that uses photographs rather than maps to guide users on routes around woods and byways. Walkers can add their own routes, and it is hoped that it the app will “increase the social appeal of people walking together” coming up with new routes within their own neighbourhoods, or areas they like to walk in.

If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

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