The government’s air quality plan may make our air more breathable in the long run but it fails to tackle some of the biggest issues facing cities and towns in the UK, and more people on bikes are a huge part of the answer.
At the heart of the plan is a move to ban all new diesel and petrol vans and cars from 2040, alongside a range of measures to support the electric car market and retrofit existing vehicles. It remains to be seen if the plan will be an effective measure to improve air quality, but it is almost guaranteed that this will be another missed opportunity to think about how we move about and live in cities and towns.
Focussing on switching from diesel and petrol vehicles to electric will most likely result in people simply changing the type of heavy box that they drive around our towns and cities in. This should improve air quality as emissions reduce over the long term, but it will do nothing to solve congestion on our streets, and it is a missed opportunity to improve public health.
There is no clearer and bigger opportunity to help reduce air pollution than encouraging more people to ride bikes.
In 2015, only 2% of trips in England were made by bicycle despite the average length of each trip being only seven miles. Switching from cars to bikes would not only reduce air pollution but solve many of the biggest issues facing our cities and towns.
Congestion is getting worse in cities across the UK at a cost to the economy of £11bn a year. While a 3.5 metre-wide single lane can transport 2,000 people an hour in cars, the same lane can be used to transport 14,000 people on bicycles – and this doesn’t even take into account the space saved on parking. With limited space in cities and rising populations, transport planning has to focus on the most efficient way of getting around.
While a switch from diesel to electric vehicles will help reduce early deaths associated with air pollution, it will do little to encourage greater physical activity. In England in 2012 only 67% of men and 55% of women met physical activity recommendations, with a similar picture in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Research from the University of Glasgow recently found cycling regularly reduced the incidence of cancer by 45%, heart disease by 46%, and of death by any cause by 41%.
Sir Liam Donaldson, the former chief medical officer for England once said: “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a wonder drug or miracle cure.” And it’s good for society too – Transport for London calculated that if all Londoners walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day this would save £1.7bn in NHS treatment costs over 25 years in the capital alone.
Cities around the world that have more bikes and fewer cars are leading the way in creating better cities. They tend to be competitive and successful and are recognised for this around the world – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Strasbourg and Utrecht are already there. Many other cities are seeking to catch up and see more bikes as vital to making their cities better for their residents – New York, Oslo, Seville, Barcelona and Paris, to name but a few.
There are benefits for the local economy too. Evidence from many places, including our own surveys in Bristol, Swansea and Newcastle, showed people arriving by bike, foot or public transport tend to visit retailers more frequently and spend more in store over a month than those travelling by car.
Sustrans, in partnership with Living Streets and the TAS Partnership, has developed the Active Travel Toolbox to support local authorities and practitioners to make the case for, and to deliver, schemes to improve cycling and walking.
The toolbox is designed to link together issues and people working on them – for example, bringing transport planners, health practitioners and spatial planners around the same table. It includes guidance, tools, and case studies to make the economic case for walking and cycling to decision makers and funders, and ensure plans for local housing growth will align with sustainable transport modes rather than encouraging more car journeys.
We urge local and national governments to do more to look across issues and challenges to ensure we focus on delivering the most effective responses. Solving breathability is important but why miss the opportunity to solve liveability?