Cycling and walking equals better air quality

By Rachel White,
cycling and walking help improve air quality

The cycling and walking air quality equation seems simple. But look under the surface, and applying the principle of increasing cycling and walking whilst simultaneously reducing motorised transport is a complex problem spanning different geographies.

An inconvenient truth

We have all seen the headlines by now. Air pollution in the UK is a serious problem. A problem that shortens lives and reduces the lung capacity of children. A problem in which motorised transport is one of the greatest contributors.

The inconvenient truth is: the only way we will seriously tackle air pollution is when we have fewer motorised vehicles on the road.

The even more inconvenient truth is that: technology alone won’t fix this. As much as 45% of Particulate Matter is caused by tyre and brake wear and so even if we move to zero-emission vehicles we will not solve our air pollution crisis.

This is where cycling and walking come in. If we can reduce motor traffic by encouraging more people in our towns and cities to walk and cycle for short everyday journeys, we can have a large impact on our air quality.

Our latest research shows that achieving the ambitions of England’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy and Scotland’s Cycling Action Plan would result in nearly £10 billion in benefits to the public purse over 10 years. However, there are many reasons why implementing networks of cycling and walking routes alongside traffic restraint can be difficult in practice.

Sustrans held a roundtable, chaired by Chris Boardman MBE, with local authorities from across England to discuss some of the barriers to tackling air pollution through implementing cycling and walking alongside traffic restraint schemes, and how these barriers might be overcome. Here are a few of the key findings. 

Old chestnuts

Whilst there was some interesting new insight from the people around the table, it would be remiss not to mention what has always been a barrier to creating more walking and cycling routes and is no different in the case of solving air pollution: economic barriers. A lack of funding for cycling and walking schemes or stop-start funding makes it hard for local authorities to commit to building cycling and walking routes.

This is one of the reasons we need proper funding to roll out cycling and walking infrastructure plans and have them linked to Clean Air Plans.

Secondly, political cycles do not help. Most political cycles are under five years and infrastructure can take many years from inception to completion. So even if you get a leader who is passionate about cycling and walking, projects can be undone by a new leader with no interest in the agenda.

Unintended consequences

Five towns and cities in England have been mandated to produce Clean Air Zones (CAZ) but one issue that was identified is in guidance from UK Government which produces unintended consequences through poor framing. For example, if UK Government suggest to a city that they should have a category of CAZ that restricts access of the most polluting buses and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to a city centre – the local authority will automatically start looking at electrification of bus fleets and other measures within that framing. It also then requires a local leader to stick their neck out and lead to say they will go one step further to include private motorised vehicles which is harder to do than showing national leadership from Government.

If the UK Government promoted and pushed for all the cities to have CAZs that included restrictions to private motorised vehicles, it broadens the framing and enables local authorities to more naturally think about the need for modal shift from cars to walking and cycling.

Another unintended consequence is from Highways England. Highways England have a designated fund for tackling air pollution but many local authorities have not been able to work with them to utilise the fund as they require investment on day one and an immediate improvement in air quality on day two. The reality is many implementations to improve air quality, including cycling and walking networks, take time to lower levels of pollution – that needs to be established and publicised.

Joining things up

Equally, cycling and walking schemes tend to be funded separately from road schemes that are planned over longer time periods. This can make it difficult to add cycling networks onto main corridors of roads and is not integrated.


It is clear we need more leadership from all levels of government and the political will to create the right environments locally to invest in walking and cycling to help tackle air pollution. One issue that was raised a lot in our roundtable discussion was that air pollution is invisible.

Most people forget that it is there and are unaware of how much it affects their health on a daily basis We clearly need a sustained campaign to raise awareness of the health impacts of air pollution at the individual level, bringing the public on board and creating further political pressure to see the change needed to help improve the air we breathe.

This is just a taster from the roundtable. If you would like to see more, look out for our short report from the round table in the new year.

Find out more about our work on air quality