Air quality: connecting evidence, legislation, practical measures … and fun!

By Dr Andy Cope,
Pupils at Glebelands Primary School in Leicester marking Clean Air Day 2018

Pupils at Glebelands Primary School in Leicester marking Clean Air Day 2018. Photograph: Leicester City Council

Air quality is one of the major health and environmental concerns of our time. A new synthesis of research evidence shows that walking and cycling can make a major contribution to addressing the problem.

The challenge now is to connect the evidence to legislative changes, and to practical measures to address the issue. Sustrans is very pleased to have been able to contribute to Public Health England’s Air Quality Review. As a charity promoting walking and cycling we have a role to play in supporting the building of the evidence base, the use of the evidence to support legislation, and translating this into measures that can be delivered locally.

Sustrans’ is working towards a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone. We make a difference at a local level. Then we work from the grassroots up. We’re always thinking about the bigger picture and long-term impact.

The Air Quality Review report recommends that local engagement focuses on encouraging the use of improved public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure. The report goes on to suggest a focus on co-implementation of interventions related to spatial planning and transport infrastructure, targeting a reduction in traffic emissions and increased access to and use of non-car traffic, investing in and promoting active transport and public transport.

We hope that such explicit encouragement will lead to governments addressing some of the key disconnects in air quality and other policies, including:

  • Improved integration of pollution policies for NOx and PMs, and even extending to carbon emissions 
  • Transport policies which adequately acknowledge air quality
  • Health policies which better support preventive measures, rather than focussing solely on remedial 'cure' work.

Joining up across these policy areas would mean that interventions that seek to reduce all forms of emissions from motor vehicles, and which support increased levels of physical activity would be better supported.

Sustrans’ work in schools makes a great case in point. We engage pupils to support them in travelling actively to school; we work to raise awareness of the positive benefits of walking and cycling; we enable the development of safe routes and networks to enable access to school; and increasingly we support local stakeholders in implementing measures to reduce the amount of traffic in the vicinity of schools.

And above all, we emphasise the fun part! The photograph accompanying this piece shows an event where Sustrans worked with Leicester City Council to support a school in closing a street outside the school for a day, and supported the pupils in engaging in fun activities to celebrate Clean Air Day.

There is a growing movement in support of measures that seek to improve air quality around schools. For example, Sustrans recently supported an initiative by the Clean Air Parents Network. Signatories to a letter addressed to a number of senior political figures supported the call to develop a Clean Air for Children Programme. This proposal asked governments to:

  1. Carry out a comprehensive air quality audit of schools, nurseries and playgrounds in known pollution hotspots to identify all those affected by illegal and harmful levels of air pollution to identify and implement policies and actions to protect children’s health.
  2. Ban the creation of new schools, nurseries and playgrounds in pollution hotspots.
  3. Bring in traffic exclusion zones around schools, nurseries and playgrounds where this will help to reduce children’s exposure.
  4. Promote and enable walking, cycling and public transport as realistic options for journeys to and from schools, nurseries and playgrounds.
  5. Provide schools and nurseries with a proactive alert system for high pollution events and guidance and support on how to protect children from air pollution throughout the year.
  6. Bring in new clean air laws to safeguard our right to breathe clean air with limits based on WHO guidelines.

Meanwhile we still look to UK Government to show leadership by creating new clean air legislation as part of the Environment Bill of the scale and scope that reflects the challenges we face today.

The Public Health England Air Quality Review report is a timely endorsement for the work that Sustrans and many other organisations are delivering throughout the UK. And if the evidence can feed into a more supportive policy environment, it will represent a very significant step forward.

Sustrans is the charity that’s making it easier for people to walk and cycle. We're working with families, communities, policy-makers and partner organisations right across the UK to encourage active travel. We are particularly interested in basing our activities in support of active  travel on a solid evidence base. We were very proud to have our work featured in a recent UN report as an example of good practice at the science-policy interface.

This blog was first published on the Public Health England Knowledge Hub Site (requires log in).

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