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Archive for the ‘transport’ Category

By Dr Jennifer Mindell, Reader in Public Health, Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London

The government is proposing to ban the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles from 2040, to address air pollution in the UK that regularly breaches health-based EU regulations.

There are three main ways to improve UK air quality: reducing emissions from vehicles; driving less; and dealing with other sources of air pollution. The government’s preferred approach seems to be ‘business as usual, but less pollution from existing travel patterns’. Yet, even with this route, they are not committing to a scrappage scheme for diesel. This would produce air-quality benefits in the short-term, instead of in the 2040s – or even the 2050s and 2060s, as some individuals and businesses keep their vehicles for a long time. A scrappage scheme needs to be available to all individuals and businesses, regardless of size, and needs to encompass vehicles of all ages. Although older vehicles are known to be very polluting, no-one really knows about new vehicles! This could be complemented by financial help for retrofitting, particularly for older buses and lorries, if replacement isn’t an option.

Drivers of diesel cars are understandably aggrieved. They were urged to buy diesel engines by previous governments and given financial incentives to do so, because of the lower CO2 emissions per km. The higher emissions of other pollutants were ignored. Those with newer vehicles have no idea what their car really emits, due to the scandalous behaviour of manufacturers. This is yet another parallel with the tobacco industry (1) which designed cigarettes to produce low tar and nicotine in the laboratory but not when used by actual smokers.

Chargeable clean-air zones (low or ultra-low emission zones) are, according to a technical report issued by the government earlier this year, the most effective mechanism, but we understand that the government’s strategy will restrict charging to the last, not the first, resort. This is one of the areas, along with improved infrastructure for transport options other than private car use, that local authorities can contribute to greatly, but they need adequate powers and adequate resources. As air pollution costs the country £20 billion annually (2), the proposed figure of £255million to local authorities is a drop in the ocean.

The government is apparently also going to urge local authorities to speed traffic flows, by amending traffic-light settings and removing speed humps. What is actually needed is more calming, not less, to support smoother driving. It is not speed humps but the marked acceleration and braking that many drivers do that increases pollution. Greater use and enforcement of, and adherence to, area-wide 20mph limits without traffic calming would be better still.

Lower speeds, which would also support more and more pleasant walking and cycling, bring me to the better approach. Instead of persuading (in the next two decades) or requiring (from 2040) people to replace their existing car with an electric car, the health gains would be far greater if people travelled by public transport, walked or cycled whenever possible. As well as reducing pollution and carbon emissions, this generally increases physical activity and can improve wellbeing and reduce obesity and its consequences.

Reductions in pollutant emissions can also be achieved by reducing the need to travel. If people who could do so worked at home once a week, that would reduce their commuting by 20%. Land-use planning that encourages mixed use can shorten journeys sufficiently to make non-car options more feasible, although this will take longer. But as the government proposal for banning sales of diesel and petrol cars is to start in 2040, they are talking longer term anyway.

The government also needs to acknowledge that, although mobile sources are the largest category of pollutants, they are not the only ones. Two major contributors are buildings, including both homes and businesses, and transboundary industrial pollution from mainland Europe. Ministerial engagement with European countries will be necessary to deal with the latter. Local authorities need to be given the powers to address the former.
Air pollution is a major contributor to health inequalities. Poorer people are more likely to be exposed to higher pollutant levels. They are also more susceptible to the harmful effects of pollutants as they are more likely to have circulatory diseases (particularly heart disease and strokes) and respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema (now called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or asthma. Improving air quality is an important factor in reducing health inequalities.

The other option that we trust the government won’t take is to move the goal posts when (or if?) the UK is no longer bound by EU legislation. That would really be a cynical approach to the population’s health.

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1. Mindell J. Lessons from tobacco control for advocates of healthy transport. J Public Health Med. 2001; 23:91-7.

2. Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. London: RCP, 2016.

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By Elizabeth Orton

The Faculty of Public Health’s Transport Injury Prevention Network will be holding an inaugural workshop at the FPH conference in Telford on 20 June.

As well as introducing the aims and objectives of the network, the session will focus on speed reduction as a key road danger reduction strategy. We will be looking at how to improve collaboration in local government between public health and transport teams to encourage active travel and reduce road danger. We will review the evidence around 20mph zones and limits and discuss strategies for their implementation, sharing examples of good practice, tools and approaches.

Please come along and share your ideas, experiences and views with us.

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