Smart Transport

Time to treat air pollution as the emergency it is

lisa hopkinson

Landmark ruling says air pollution was cause of child’s death. Measures must be taken to reduce risks, says Lisa Hopkinson

The death of nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah made legal history late last year when, for the first time, air pollution was recorded as a cause in an individual’s death in the UK.

Ella and her family lived close to the busy South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, where levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution constantly exceeded legal limits. She died from a severe asthma attack in 2013. It took a determined campaign by her mother to overturn the findings of a previous inquest and record the true cause of her little girl’s death. 

The UK has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the world: one-in-11 UK children receive treatment for it.

Evidence from a European study (Aphekom) showed that living near busy roads could be responsible for some 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children.

But it’s not just children with asthma who are affected. Air pollution has a life-long impact starting from the first few weeks in the womb and all children are impacted. Levels of air pollution that would cause only slight irritation in an adult can result in potentially significant obstruction in the airways of a young child.

The majority (33 out of 43) of air quality reporting zones in the UK have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and the majority of areas have high levels of deadly fine particulate matter levels (PM2.5) for which there is no safe threshold. Back in 2016 a cross-party group of MPs described air pollution in the UK as a “public health emergency” with an annual effect equivalent to as many as 36,000 deaths a year. Little wonder that a Living Streets survey showed that the majority of parents of primary school age children are concerned about the effects of air pollution on their child’s health.

School Streets

One effective and achievable measure that can help protect children from the dangers of air pollution, as well as wider road danger, is ‘School Streets’, where traffic is restricted on roads outside schools at pick-up and drop-off times during term-times. This is the time and place when children (and often their younger siblings) are most concentrated, so it makes sense to restrict traffic here. School Streets also makes it safer and easier for children to walk, scoot and cycle to school, bringing multiple physical and mental health benefits associated with the increased physical activity.

A new report from climate charity Possible and Mums for Lungs, co-authored by myself and researchers from Transport for Quality of Life and the Active Travel Academy, suggests that there is massive untapped potential for more School Streets.

Even in London where there are currently more than 400 School Streets in place (mostly on a trial basis) and a further 50 planned, this represents only 15% of schools. We estimated that the roll-out of School Streets in four major cities: London, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol, could reduce exposure to air pollution and road danger for 1.25 million students.

There is likely to be similar potential in other towns and cities.

Our study found that around half of schools already have School Streets or else are judged likely to be feasible for them (based on criteria such as whether they are on a main road). This proportion rises to around two-thirds if one includes schools that might be feasible for School Streets if implemented alongside bus gates and/or area-wide measures.

The Government’s announcement that it will grant powers to local authorities under Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act by the summer will remove one of the biggest obstacles to enforcement of School Streets for local authorities outside London.

London authorities can use automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to deter drivers without exemptions, whereas schools outside London have been reliant on access signs, temporary bollards and volunteers for enforcement. This welcome move by the Government, long overdue, will give local authorities outside London the same powers to use cameras to enforce School Streets. 

Across the country, millions of primary and secondary students could – and should – benefit from the implementation of School Streets. And town- or city-wide networks of School Streets would have wider impacts on other road users such as commuters and residents, which can amplify the benefits across the whole urban area.

However, while necessary they are not sufficient on their own to avert the UK’s air quality crisis. Protecting children and the wider population requires other measures which can reduce air pollution and traffic generally – and not just on streets outside schools.

Urgent action is needed to implement more ambitious measures such as low traffic neighbourhoods and clean air zones which have immediate impacts on air quality and traffic across neighbourhoods and city-wide.

And even these may not be enough to drive down emissions of deadly PM2.5, an increasingly large proportion of which comes from non-exhaust sources such as brake, tyre and road wear.

Road pricing 

Ultimately, it is clear we need to implement a pay-per-mile ‘eco levy’ on driving to reduce traffic and air pollution on all roads.

Such a levy would be different to a congestion charge, with the price linked to distance driven as well as vehicle size and emissions. The charge could also be varied by time of day and area (e.g. higher charges at peak hours and lower charges in areas with less well-developed public transport).

This would mean that people making short journeys in small low-emission cars in places without good public transport would not pay very much, but those driving a lot in large, polluting cars in places with good public transport would pay more.

A road charging scheme for London based on distance, vehicle emissions and availability of public transport has been proposed by Centre for Cities.

It found that a London distance-based charge linked to vehicle emissions could reduce CO2 and air pollution by up to 30%. The advantage for local authorities introducing schemes rather than Government is they get to keep the revenue which would then be reinvested in measures to reduce traffic, improve public transport and promote active travel.

Far more drastic measures have been taken during the Covid crisis to avert a public health disaster. Now is the time to treat the air pollution emergency as such.

Everyone wants to live on safe streets with clean air. This is particularly important for children, who are especially vulnerable to the impacts of pollution. No parent should have to worry about the effects of air pollution on their children’s health or, God forbid, watch them die.

We have the measures to transform transport; to create healthier towns and cities, we now need to make sure our local authorities, with the support of central Government, deliver them.

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