1. Transport
  2. Cycling & micromobility
March 23, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 2:31pm

10 ways in which walking and cycling can improve Britain’s air quality

By Rachel White

Tens of thousands of people are dying prematurely from air pollution in our towns and cities each year. Transport emissions are the main contributor to air pollution where legal limits are being broken – and the government has just a third legal battle regarding those limits.

The government’s reluctance to seriously consider traffic restraint – to help local authorities re-imagine and build streets for people, not cars – is impeding our ability to clean up the air we breathe.

But walking and cycling can bring large improvements in air quality, where modal shift is achieved away from motorised transport. The transport charity Sustrans has modelled these effects, and has found that we can expect savings to the economy of nearly £6bn over ten years in England through the reduced health costs from air pollution – provided the government achieves the targets to double cycling and increase walking it set out in its Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy. This is in addition to the more than 8,300 premature deaths from air pollution that could be prevented over that time.

With this in mind, Sustrans examined why not enough action was taken to shift people away from motorised cars towards walking and cycling everyday journeys. Our ‘Actively improving air quality’ report contains ten recommendations from local authorities, public health practitioners and academics on what needs to be done to reduce the barriers to investing in cycling and walking to improve air quality.

  • The UK government should show leadership by creating a new Clean Air Act that tackles all forms of air pollution; and improves and strengthens existing legislation, enshrining the right to breathe clean air into law after we leave the EU.
  • The UK government should better link up cross-departmental policies that produce positive air quality outcomes, starting with properly funding and linking the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy and Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plans with air quality plans.
  • Local Government should place health practitioners in transport and planning teams to help integrate cycling and walking infrastructure that promotes healthier lifestyles and better air quality.
  • The UK government should lead a national campaign to increase awareness and build momentum from communities to tackle air pollution and give politicians the mandate to act.
  • Health, environmental and transport charities should work together more, to raise awareness and deliver change to enable more people to walk and cycle to tackle air pollution.
  • All combined authorities should have a walking & cycling commissioner with the power and mandate to deliver walking and cycling programmes that improve air quality.
  • The UK government should reframe the appraisal mechanism for bids from Local Enterprise Partnerships and by extension local authorities, so that local authorities can build cycling and walking programmes into their plans and bids to tackle air pollution with confidence.
  • The UK government should prioritise direct measures to limit private vehicles as the mode of choice into city centres as a central component of Clean Air Zones. In addition, they need to help local authorities set a trajectory of measures to deliver long-term continuous improvement in air quality beyond 2020.
  • The UK government should provide dedicated, continuous funding and ‘over the horizon’ transparency of future funding options for walking and cycling as part of a long-term strategy that enables local authorities to prepare cycling and walking programmes that are shovel-ready in order to tackle air pollution.
  • Local authorities and charities need to work closely with communities from the outset on community engagement programmes that help to increase the public’s understanding of the benefits of walking and cycling on air quality.

The UK government must show leadership now to inspire and help local authorities change their town and city centres; to create places where people can meet, children can play and businesses can thrive; where walking and cycling is both the normal and the most convenient way to get around – and to ensure our towns and cities not choked in poisonous air.

Rachel White is a senior policy and political advisor at the transport charity Sustrans.


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