There are few things that are more important to public health than the air we breathe. Unfortunately, air quality has often been neglected. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, 36 UK local authorities, covering nearly 40 million people, had illegal levels of air pollution.
The impact of air pollution on our health is clear. The WHO predicts that it is responsible for over 3 million worldwide deaths a year and recent research has shown a link between levels of air pollution and Covid-19 deaths. As Aaron Bernstein, the director of the Center for Climate, Health and Global Environment at Harvard University said, ‘The evidence we have is pretty clear that people who have been living in places that are more polluted over time…are more likely to die from coronavirus.’ Moreover, air pollution is a social justice issue, as it tends to disproportionately affect low income communities, just like Covid-19 has done.
One silver lining of the Covid-19 crisis was the rapid reduction of air pollution caused by the lockdown. Since lockdown began in late March, UK traffic plummeted by nearly 75% during lockdown. Cities around the world experienced a dramatic drop in air pollution upon enforcing lockdowns; 44% in Wuhan, 54% in Seoul, 60% in New Delhi, while it was estimated to have halved in commuter hotspots in London.
Despite the tragic consequences of Covid-19, it has provided a window of opportunity to remake our cities so that they are healthier, greener and safer places for us all. So, what can local and national governments do to cut air pollution in our cities after Covid-19?
Make urban centres clean air zones.
While it will be necessary to drive for some journeys, the Office for National Statistics has found that 42% agree with the statement that ‘many of the journeys of less than 2 miles that I now make by car I could just as easily walk or cycle’. Cities could discourage unnecessary journeys in polluting vehicles by making city centres ‘clean air zones.’ London has introduced an ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ in the city centre, which means that vehicles driving in the zone, that don’t pass the emissions standards, have to pay a charge (£12.50 for most private vehicles and £100 for heavier vehicles). Though certain car journeys, such as for getting patients to hospital, are eligible for reimbursements. Within months of its implementation, it contributed to 13,500 fewer cars in the ULEZ and cut toxic air pollution by a third.
Despite fears to the contrary, a 2017 study found that city congestion charges do not adversely affect the poor, as revenues can be used for public transport, which is more likely to be used by lower income groups. They argue that the revenue generated by pricing could compensate any poor drivers harmed. In contrast, ‘free roads’ (i.e. those without congestion charges) generate no revenue to compensate those harmed by the pollution of vehicles, which disproportionately burdens low income communities. It is also possible to design a scheme to reimburse and thus further compensate those on low incomes, alongside reinvesting in public transport.
Due to high levels of air pollution across the UK, cities outside London are starting to take action. Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester are set to introduce a city-centre ‘Clean Air Zone’. Meanwhile, Nottingham has introduced a Workplace Parking Levy for employers with 11 or more spaces for 2017-18 (with exemptions for disabled parking spaces and emergency services), which has raised £9 million a year for local public transport.
Aside from the ‘stick’ of parking and congestion charges, city governments have been providing the ‘carrot’ of free parking outside the city centre connected by low-emission public transport – in so called ‘Park and Ride’ schemes. 2 million journeys have been made on the Leeds Park and Ride scheme so far, removing over 9,000 cars from city centre roads each week.
A more radical approach is to pedestrianise or even ban private cars from parts of the city centre, which would allow public transport and emergency services to move with less congestion. In 2018, Madrid banned polluting vehicles in its ‘central zone’ – an area covering 1,166 acres – leading to more nitrogen dioxide reductions than any city in Europe. It has gained public support too, as 20,000 took to the streets to successfully prevent the government from re-introducing cars in the city centre. In the UK, York and Brighton have plans to make their city-centres ‘car free’ by 2023.
But alongside discouraging polluting vehicles entering city centres, local and national governments need make the necessary investments to ensure that the alternatives to driving are viable.
Invest in public transport
For a start, governments must invest in public transport. It is undoubtedly the case that London’s comprehensive public transport system has contributed to the success of its congestion charge and ULEZ zone.
Congestion and parking charges can help to fund local public transport, but there clearly needs to be investment from central government, too. In the UK, the Government must address the vast disparity between London and the rest of the UK in transport infrastructure. A 2019 study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that London receives (£3,636) seven times more transport spending per head than in Yorkshire and the Humber (£511) and the North East (£519). Leeds is currently the largest city in Europe that does not have a mass transit system.
Rather than decrease spending in London, the answer is to narrow the gap by levelling-up transport spending to more closely match the capital. The UK Government’s announcement of £5 billion for local transport outside of London, including 4,000 new zero emission buses, is a positive sign. But this needs to be just the beginning, not the end, of necessary transport investment.
Invest in infrastructure to make our cities safer for walking and cycling
Cycling and walking must also be safe and viable. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are two model examples of cycling infrastructure in major cities. In Copenhagen, 41% of all journeys to work and study are by bike – compared to 1.7% of journeys in England – and it is estimated that 58% of ‘Amsterdammers’ cycle every day on the 400km of cycle routes criss-crossing the city. Amsterdam and Copenhagen were as car-reliant as any other European city in the 1960s and 70s, but both cities (and their countries) have engaged in sustained investment in cycling infrastructure. For instance, the Dutch network of cycle tracks and routes increased from 9,000 km in the mid-1970s to approximately 29,000 km by 2014. The UK Government’s recent announcement of £2 billion for cycling and walking is a promising start, but this investment must be sustained to achieve an Amsterdam-style transformation for the UK.
It should also be even easier to get bikes. Cycle to work discount schemes should be reinvigorated and provide even more of an incentive. VAT could be slashed on all bikes below a certain price to make them more affordable, while grants to subsidise affordable bikes and equipment for school pupils should also be explored to form cycling habits from an early age. Bike subsidies and discounts could also be provided for key workers. And more UK cities should, in line with London and many other European cities, adopt city-wide bike schemes to make it easy for people to pick up, cycle and drop off bikes around the city.
The pandemic has been a tragedy for so many but has opened a ‘window of opportunity’ for making significant changes that we should have made long ago. For saving lives, for greener and healthier cities and for our future on this planet, it’s an opportunity we simply cannot afford to miss.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.