Outdoor air pollution, most of it generated by the motors, tyres and brakes of private motor vehicles, is now calculated to be causing at least 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Can you imagine the outcry if this sort of mortality rate was associated with – say – kitchen food waste caddies? Other major causes of death, such as smoking (c.100,000 premature deaths) and obesity (perhaps 30,000) are the target of major public health campaigns. So why is government – national or local – so unwilling to act on air quality?
Air pollution attacks the health and impedes the development of our children from their first days in the womb, accelerates cognitive decline in older people, and punishes the most frail. Perhaps worst of all, it falls disproportionately on the poorest, who themselves may not be car owners and may contribute least to the problem, but who often live in areas riddled with motor traffic.
This is an absolute scandal, laid out in stark terms in a hard-hitting report from the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health working party on air quality. I’m proud to have brought my company’s expert perspective to this table, adding to the world-class academic expertise assembled by the Royal Colleges.
Governments of all persuasions – and local authorities – have known about this problem for many years, but have feared being accused of waging ‘war against the motorist’ if they take action to reduce the volume of motor traffic and root out the worst polluting vehicles from our towns and cities. The motor lobby has far more influence than deprived children living next to major urban roads.
Administrations have simply hoped the problem would go away – in particular hoping that the growth in use of electric vehicles would lead to cleaner air. It will no doubt do that, but not for years at best.
Initial media coverage of the report has not helped, with headlines about scented candles and the Daily Mail brushing off transport pollution with “danger of pollution from car fumes is well understood”. Not well enough understood for you to demand action, then?
Recent legal action led by the environmental law group ClientEarth has seen the UK government ordered to implement European air quality standards.
Among a wide-ranging set of recommendations, the Royal Colleges’ working party recommends:
- local authorities to close roads or divert traffic when air pollution levels exceed limits
- tougher regulations and reliable emissions testing for motor vehicles
- for the NHS (a huge generator of motor traffic) to set an example and to cease being a major polluter
- and for each of us to choose walking, cycling or public transport rather than the car, wherever we can.
The only way to tackle the problem of local toxic air pollution now, to reduce the appalling death toll, curb the lifelong impacts on children born or unborn, and stop the cruel acceleration of cognitive decline in older people, is radical action on motor transport in cities and towns. Special pleading by motoring interest groups should be viewed with disdain.
Breathing new life into transport
And while measuring the impact on the air we breathe, authorities should also count the co-benefits, because as every reader already knows, a shift to active travel also:
- increases physical activity and cuts obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, many forms of cancer, depression and other forms of ill-health;
- reduces road danger and makes everyone safer;
- cuts climate change emissions;
- cuts noise; and
- reduces community severance and social isolation.
It also helps reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels, improves the balance of payments and saves money on road schemes.
There is a clear imperative and a list of health and other gains to be made: national and local government should take a deep breath and tackle air pollution!
Philip Insall is Director at Insall & Coe. Like other Isonomia authors, Phil writes in a personal capacity. We are grateful to Insall & Coe for their permission to publish this article, which first appeared here. Author Photo ©Sustrans (J Bewley/Sustrans)