Air pollution: Why tomorrow could be different

Photo: Cycling UK
Lock-down due to COVID-19 has seen air pollution levels plummet. The roads are quieter. More families seem to be out cycling, with essential workers relying on pedal power to commute. Head of Campaigns Duncan Dollimore asks whether the crisis is an opportunity, if tomorrow could be different, and what might the new normal look like?

Crisis is a word we’ve all heard repeatedly in recent weeks, as we adjust our lives in various ways in response to COVID-19. But without wishing in any way to minimise its devastating impact on so many people, I’m looking for the opportunities this crisis presents, particularly when it comes to transport and the movement of people.

A new and better normal

You see, crises tend to wake us up and make us think about the way we do things, and perhaps that’s why it’s often said that something good comes out of every crisis. Of course, if you or your friends and family are faced with the illness, or are impacted financially, socially or otherwise, or the responsibilities many essential workers now face, then the present might well seem bleak and opportunities a distant prospect.

Nevertheless, while the experts might disagree about timescales it seems they concur that at some point the current ‘lockdown’ restrictions will be relaxed, and the immediate public health crisis will subdue. And when that happens and life returns to normal, we need a new and better normal.

Huge drop in air pollution

Good news stories have seemed hard to find in the last month, but the huge drop in air pollution as a consequence of the pandemic is definitely one of them. Referencing the health benefits from a reduction in air pollution, Paul Monks, Professor of Air Pollution at the University of Leicester and former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality predicted there will be important lessons to learn, and a realisation that we need to change our lifestyles, saying that “This challenges us in the future to think, do we really need to drive our car there or burn fuel for that?”

It’s difficult to gather data on the number of people walking and cycling over a period of a few weeks, particularly given the current restrictions, but I’m sure many of you, like me, will have spotted that there seem to be more families cycling for their permitted daily exercise, and more people choosing to cycle for utility and work purposes instead of using public transport.

Of course, the roads are quieter and there’s less motor traffic, so the prospect of taking your children out for a ride appears safer and altogether more appealing. The challenge is to enable people to continue travelling more actively once the lockdown ends, and what’s happened with air pollution in recent weeks must be a wake-up call for politicians regarding transport priorities and investment in cycling and walking.

Within a matter of weeks, the UK has seen unprecedented reductions in air pollution, with drops in tiny particle pollution (PM2.5) of a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff. Manchester, York and Belfast have similarly experienced PM2.5 reductions of around a quarter. For nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant that comes principally from the use of fossil fuels, the data also show declines of a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff, but it’s not just the largest cities that have benefited, with Portsmouth seeing the highest drop in NO2 levels in England during lockdown and Hafodyrynys in Wales the largest in the UK.

The largest experiment ever seen

The health consequences of air pollution are well known and estimated to cause about 110 premature deaths every day in the UK. Levels of NO2 in most urban areas of the UK have been illegally high since 2010, with many areas also having PM2.5 levels of small particles above the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation.

It’s easy to get lost with large numbers and statistics, so it perhaps helps to bring this down to the scale of a small city, like Portsmouth, where the city council’s Cabinet Member for Environment Dave Ashmore said this week that the data showing improvements in air quality highlighted the effect of car use in the city, and “shows that the volume of car usage has a direct impact on levels of NO2”. He then referenced Public Health England estimates that 90 people in Portsmouth die every year due to air pollution, pointing out that “If 90 people a year died from something else, we would be saying this is horrific, because it is.”

Motor traffic accounts for about 80% of nitrogen oxide emissions in the UK, so the health benefits of reducing motor traffic are obvious, with Professor Paul Monks referring to the traffic reduction caused by the pandemic as “the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” and asking “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Environmental consequences of car dependency

Tragically, however awful the consequences of COVID-19, the cruel irony is that whilst air quality is improving during this crisis, experts have warned that health damage inflicted on people by long-standing air pollution in cities is likely to increase the death rate from coronavirus infections, because damage to the heart and lungs from dirty air means respiratory infections, such as coronavirus, may well have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic fumes, than on others.

Air pollution is of course just one of the societal and environmental consequences of car dependency, but it’s perhaps the one most graphically highlighted by the temporary changes imposed on our lifestyles by COVID-19. It will be however be interesting to see what happens with CO2 emissions as a consequence of lockdown, and indeed road traffic casualty figures, another indicator of lives lost that society is inured to and too often accepts as unavoidable.

What does the new normal look like?

So, when we’re over the immediate crisis, what should the new normal look like?  

It shouldn’t seem normal to drive less than a mile to the shops, and it shouldn’t seem normal to plan and build housing developments that design in car dependency.

Duncan Dollimore, Head of Campaigns

Well, it shouldn’t seem normal to drive less than a mile to the shops, and it shouldn’t seem normal to plan and build housing developments that design in car dependency. Rather it should seem normal to prioritise cycling and walking, and invest in active travel to help save the planet, our children’s futures and our health. And it should seem normal to factor in the health, environmental and social costs of other forms of transport when politicians make transport investment decisions.

I know, Ministers have a lot on their plates at the minute, so re-thinking long-term transport investment won’t be today’s priority, but they could start the journey towards the new normal by thinking about how people move around during this current crisis, and by heeding calls for the Government to take steps to enable more people to cycle now.

With more than a third of trips in the UK under two miles, and more than 60% of them less than five miles, the scope is there, particularly in urban areas, for many more one-person trips to be made by bike or on foot. How to move around without contracting or spreading coronavirus is of course a real issue for those who still have to travel into work, or to collect supplies or visit vulnerable people, so cycling is an option the Government should be not just promoting but enabling.

Cycling UK – still open for business

That’s why Cycling UK have written to the Government and City Mayors calling on them to actively encourage cycling for short journeys and provide support measures during this crisis, and we’ll continue to press in the coming weeks to ensure that they think about how people move around, the benefits of active travel, and what needs to happen to create a new normal, where cycling and walking are the natural forms of transport, not just a policy aspiration.

President John Kennedy famously said that “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters - one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity." 

At Cycling UK, we’re looking for the opportunities, and we’re determined to grasp them, not because tomorrow could be different, but because it must be.