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19 June 2020

Improvements in air quality during the pandemic – can they be sustained?

The below article first appeared in Air Quality News here.

The improvement in air quality during lockdown has been widely reported and the benefits have been enjoyed across the UK. However, as restrictions ease this improvement could be quickly lost. Health concerns and reduced capacity on public transport due to social distancing measures may mean that more of us turn to private cars to travel and a sustained recession could hamper the uptake of electric vehicles by both individuals and businesses who may put off expensive fleet upgrades.

Initial data appear to support these concerns. Although car use dropped to around a third of normal levels at the start of lockdown, by 1 June it was back up to 65%. Meanwhile National Rail use was still only at 6%, London Underground at 10%, and bus journeys nationwide at 17%. If these trends continue, the risk is not only that any improvement will be lost but that air pollution will increase above pre-lockdown levels.

But it is not all bad news. The impacts of poor air quality are more widely understood now than ever and public pressure on the government to improve air quality has never been greater. Having experienced cleaner air over the last few months, there is the potential for a new momentum to build behind efforts to reduce air pollution. As President Macron said in a recent interview in the Financial Times, as we return to a more normal way of life, ‘people will no longer accept breathing dirty air’. If he is right, transport infrastructure will be a key area for improvement. The question is what can government and local authorities do to make sure the new normal is less polluted than the old one?

Clean air zones

Clean air zones are perhaps the most obvious candidate, where polluting vehicles are charged to enter the zone. Although several major cities are introducing clean air zones in their central areas, currently none of them has come into force and the implementation of many of them has been postponed due to the pandemic. However, they have the potential to have a dramatic impact on air quality (London’s ultra-low emission zone has reportedly led to a 37% drop in NO2 concentrations within the central zone) and speed up the transition to lower emission vehicles through the provision of local scrappage schemes.

Workplace parking levy (WPL) schemes

As well as introducing the road user charging schemes used to implement clean air zones, the Transport Act 2000 also introduced the ability for councils to set up workplace parking levy schemes. Instead of imposing a charge on individual vehicles, WPL schemes charge employers who provide workplace parking with the aim of encouraging carpooling and use of alternative modes of transport.

Nottingham City Council is currently the only council to have introduced a WPL scheme but the results have been encouraging. As well as tackling congestion, the scheme raises around £9 million a year to fund public transport improvements.

Cycling and walking infrastructure

On 23 May, the government published new guidance for local authorities encouraging them to reallocate road space for walking and cycling ‘as swiftly as possible’. The guidance suggests the use of Traffic Regulation Orders where necessary to introduce a variety of measures, including pop-up cycle lanes, the widening of footpaths and new pedestrian and cycle zones. The government has also introduced regulations giving new powers to local councils to police the use of cycle lanes.

Many authorities have already announced their plans and pop-up cycle lanes are springing up around the UK. The challenge will be ensuring any modal shift achieved can be maintained in the long-term.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

A switch to electric vehicles may not be the answer to reducing particulate matter produced by the deterioration of brakes and tyres, but EVs do have a key role to play in reducing exhaust emissions. More charging points is often cited as the key to increasing the take-up of electric vehicles but there are other measures which are worth considering, for example preferential access to bus lanes and the provision of more or cheaper parking for electric vehicles.

The government appears to agree and has recently announced that zero-emission vehicles will soon sport a green flash on their number plate. The hope is that this will make it easier for local authorities to identify zero-emission vehicles ‘for the purposes of locally led policies and incentives’. What effect this will have remains to be seen but trialling new approaches is surely welcome.

These are just some of the options available but there are many more. In practice, securing a long-term improvement in air quality will require a combination of approaches and a fairly radical rethink of how we travel. However, as we all adjust to a new way of living and working, there has perhaps never been a better time to make these changes.

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