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Air pollution: We have a duty to the next generation

By Chris Bennett,
cyclists on main road helps keep our air clean

Walking and cycling, particularly for short journeys in towns and cities, helps keep our air clean

It can be hard to get our heads around the air we breathe when it’s something we can’t see. For Chris Bennett, our Head of Behaviour Change, it was the birth of his first daughter that brought home the everyday reality of the public health crisis facing the UK. Here’s his personal reflection on the publication of the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan. 

Over the last couple of months the air pollution crisis facing the UK and the challenges to address them have been made very real to me.

At the end of May, my wonderful daughter Adeline was born. She was nine weeks early and had two collapsed lungs. Sitting in St Michael’s Hospital overlooking Bristol with a haze of air pollution sprawling across the city, I struggled to come to terms with the reality of bringing up my very vulnerable daughter in the middle of a city with illegal levels of air pollution.

Since then I have become more committed to reducing my contribution to air pollution. So when I was required to travel from Bristol to rural Sussex recently I decided to hire an electric car from one of the city’s car clubs.

This 200-mile round trip made something very clear to me: significant progress will need to be made before the electric car revolution is here; Along the way I had to stop three times to charge the battery, getting to grips with different accounts and apps each time, with many of the charging points being incompatible with the car. Some charge points were lower voltage with a charge time of more than three hours for 70 miles of driving. 

On the same journey I was stuck in heavy town centre traffic, or as the saying goes, "I wasn’t in a jam, I was the jam". 

In addition to issues around congestion, a shift to electric cars does not address the problem of particulate matter, caused by tyre and brake wear, of which there are no healthy levels. Nor will it address public health issues around obesity and low levels of physical activity, not to mention the economic benefits associated with other alternatives such as walking and cycling.

The recent publication of the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan is, on the surface, a positive step, but as ever the devil is in the detail.

Nearly two weeks on and what remains clear is that we need to take action immediately, not wait until 2040. By this time, my daughter will be 23 years old and millions of other children will have been born into environments which are unsafe. I’m in no doubt that more urgent action is needed and that electric cars are not a magic bullet.

Recent news stories, such as removing speed bumps or implementing motorway canopies, highlight the government’s desire to address air pollution without challenging or addressing a transport system which is reliant on cars. Instead, there should be a focus on making it easier for people to walk and cycle for short journeys.

The report into the Cycling City and Towns Programme which evaluated the impact of infrastructure on cycling levels in 18 cities, has proven that well planned, long-term investment is effective in shifting journeys from cars to walking and cycling. All that is required is the political will and funding to make it happen.

To help us clean our air now, before it's too late for the next generation, we need to see a seismic shift towards other modes of transport, such as walking and cycling, particularly for short journeys in towns and cities.

What this means on the ground is significant investment and ambition on a national and local level to shift everyday journeys to walking, cycling and public transport, and the implementation of Clean Air Zones in cities across the UK with the powers to make a real difference.

Find out why the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan shows lack of leadership