The way we travel has transformed in recent months. The number of people using public transport has plummeted, bus use has fallen by 85 per cent and rail use has dropped by 95 per cent, according to the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report. And people want change. A study in major European cities by Transport and Environment found that almost three quarters of respondents do not want to return to pre-coronavirus levels of pollution. These sentiments have been matched by a surge in sales of bikes and e-bikes: 60 per cent more bikes and 50 per cent more e-bikes were sold in April compared to the same time last year. New car registrations have also fallen to their lowest monthly level since 1946.
The government’s recent Gear change report reveals plans to consolidate and facilitate these shifts and give people what they want by making it easier, cheaper and safer to travel by bike or foot. The report lays out how the new £2 billion active travel budget will be spent, including encouraging local authorities to build safer cycle lanes, with an effective ban on new paint-only cycle lanes and adjustments to the highway code, providing £50 bike repair vouchers, introducing access to bikes on the NHS, increasing cycle parking and establishing a national e-bike strategy.
The impact on air quality will be huge, the report predicts: “meeting the targets to double cycling and increase walking would lead to savings of £567 million annually from air quality alone and prevent 8,300 premature deaths each year and provide opportunities to improve green spaces and biodiversity”. Clean air, it states “will be to the 21st century what clean water was to the 19th”.
Air quality is the biggest environmental risk to health
Transport causes 98 per cent of the UK’s air pollution hotspots and the government has identified poor air quality as the largest environmental risk to public health, with links to chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer. It is thought to cause 28,000 to 36,000 annual deaths.
There are also wider concerns about the unequal distribution of these health impacts. Air pollutants have been shown to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, children and elderly people and those who live in deprived neighbourhoods. A recent report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also found that exposure to air pollution could be a factor in increasing coronavirus infections and deaths.
Clean air zones should be central to the strategy
But the measures set out in the Gear change report can only go so far to tackle air quality while clean air zones remain postponed in so many places. As mentioned in the report, these zones would complement the new government investments in active travel; charging private cars discourages their use within the zone and thus encourages people to shift to active travel or public transport, leading to healthier, lower carbon travel.
However, in response to the pandemic, a number of cities, including Birmingham, Leeds and Bath, have put off the implementation of their clean air zones until 2021, and Manchester is delaying until 2022.
As the British Lung Foundation argues, clean air zones are needed in towns and cities across the UK to protect everyone’s health “including the 12 million people in the UK with an existing respiratory condition and those who will be recovering from Covid-19.” And all the evidence shows it works, London’s ultra low emission zone and supporting T-charge scheme have led to a 97 per cent reduction in hourly breaches of the legal limit for nitrogen oxide, as well as a 13 per cent decrease in the total number of cars entering the city. As part of levelling up the country, benefits like these should not be exclusive to the capital, but felt by everyone in towns and cities nationwide.