Building protected cycle lanes can prevent premature deaths from air pollution

cyclist on protected cycle lane
4 December 2017

Building traffic free routes and protected cycle lanes in towns and cities across Scotland can help to prevent premature deaths from air pollution, according to new research released today.

Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, has released a model1, which can, for the first time, monetise the contribution of walking and cycling to improving air quality and the subsequent benefits to public health.

Developed in partnership with environmental consultancy Eunomia, the Air Quality Benefits of Active Travel report carried out modelling that analysed a number of cycling and walking infrastructure schemes run by Sustrans across Scotland and England and looked at the effects of possible city wide interventions.

It found the UK economy could save £931m annually from improved air quality, by meeting the stated goals to increase walking and cycling in Scotland and England. That’s more than £9 billion over 10 years.

Of this, savings of £364 million would be realised annually from improved air quality in Scotland, if the modal share of 10% of all journeys by bike, set out in Scotland’s Cycling Action Plan, was achieved.  It would also mean nearly 4,000 premature deaths would be avoided over a decade.

This was echoed in England, where doubling cycling and increasing walking set out in the Government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy could save £5.67 billion over 10 years. This is five times more in financial savings from air quality improvements than Westminster’s planned Clean Air Zones.

The Sustrans Connect 2 project in Glasgow, which completed an unfinished bridge across the M8 and delivered a partly protected route from the city centre to Kelvingrove, is calculated to provide £104,820 in air quality-related health benefits each year.

This large economic benefit is achieved because of the high numbers of people who have chosen swapping cars for cycling as a result of the creation of safe, protected infrastructure, but also because 72% of the route is located away from traffic, and therefore has lower pollution exposure levels.

And, whilst some findings show that the exposure to pollution for people cycling on the busiest roads was higher than those who were sedentary in a car due to a higher respiratory rate; when combined with the wider health benefits of cycling from increased physical activity – the benefits of cycling to our health is always far greater than being in a motor vehicle in this country.

The UK has repeatedly broken EU legal limits of Nitrogen Dioxide, derived mainly from Diesel vehicles. And every year tens of thousands of early deaths can be linked to breathing polluted air. Many cities have also high levels of particulate matter, 45% of which comes from car tyre and brake wear and won’t be reduced by a move to electric vehicles2.

The Scottish Government also recently developed more detailed proposals to deal with Air Pollution. In 2016, the number of air quality management areas (AQMA) in Scotland increased from 34 to 38. 

This has resulted in a Scottish Government consultation, which proposes to introduce Low Emission Zones to 4 Scottish cities by 2020, and all AQMAs by 2023. In addition, the Scottish Government has doubled the budget for walking and cycling and is taking forward five Community Link Plus schemes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Inverness, which will be funded by Transport Scotland, local authorities and others and coordinated by Sustrans.

Sustrans Scotland National Director, John Lauder said:

“The model created through our Air Quality Benefits of Active Travel report show that building more protected and traffic free cycling and walking routes in our towns and cities will help to cut the number of deaths caused by air pollution each year. The report helps demonstrate the good sense of the Scottish Government doubling the budget for walking and cycling.

“The vitality and health of our neighbourhoods rely on the way we move around. By providing a network of direct protected routes along busier roads in addition to quieter routes will encourage more people to walk and ride a bike.

“Walking and cycling have a huge role to play in reducing air pollution in towns and cities across Scotland. And at a time when road transport is responsible for 80% of NOx pollution where legal limits are being broken, it has never been more important to reduce the number of motorised vehicles on our roads”.

Lead modeller and air quality expert at Eunomia, Ann Ballinger said:

“This is the first time that Sustrans’ data has been used alongside public health data to understand what impacts walking and cycling schemes have on an individual’s exposure to air pollution.

“Our analysis suggests investment in cycling and walking has considerable potential to improve local air pollution. We believe this innovative model could be of considerable value in supporting local authorities and government as these bodies consider options to tackle the air pollution emergency at a local level.”

Find out more  

1. Using transport appraisal mechanism, the model estimates amounts of emissions from motor vehicles and assigns a standard ‘damage cost’ monetary value to them, to quantify the health impact.

2. Transport for London (2014) Improving the health of Londoners: Transport Action Plan

Notes to editors

For more information, interviews and case studies, contact: Claire Daly, Policy and Communications Manager, [email protected], 0131 346 1384

What Sustrans projects have been put into the model?

The model has been used to analyse the impact on air quality of 18 ‘infrastructure projects’ across the UK, i.e. delivery of local routes and networks for cycling and walking. These 18 projects were drawn from Sustrans’ UK-wide Connect2 projects and Community Links programme in Scotland.

Connect2 (Glasgow, Dumfries, Bethnal Green, Havering, Norwich, Northampton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Dover, Leeds, Cardiff) and Community Links (River Lossie - Moray, Adelphi Street - Glasgow, Milton Bridge - Midlothian, Balmaha - Loch Lomond, Almondvale Park - West Lothian, Dunoon - Argyll and Bute, Great Glen Way - Scottish Canals)

How and why did the schemes get chosen?

These schemes were selected on the basis of geographical distribution (whilst recognising the Scottish funding source and the Northern Ireland gap) and ensuring there was a mix of high usage and low usage schemes; road-adjacent and road-separated routes; and differing levels of walking relative to cycling.

This was for the purposes of testing the model. The technical report shows that some schemes are more successful than others, and we wanted to be able to identify the ‘drivers’ of effectiveness of schemes’ impacts on air quality. This is definitely not a group of the 18 most successful schemes in terms of air quality.

What exactly does the model do?

The model compares ‘pre’ and ‘post’ scenarios in the case of each infrastructure scheme, and estimates two types of benefits in relation to air pollution from shifting to active travel:

  • Change in emissions resulting in a change in the number of trips by car: estimates the reduced emissions of air pollutants: particulate matter 10 (PM10) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) from car journeys replaced by active travel.
  • Change in the extent of route user’s personal exposure: estimates the air quality health benefit (or dis-benefit) to a group of people walking or cycling due to a change in exposure to pollution from their change in mode of travel. The model can then scale up this value to larger populations.

Sustrans is the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle.  We connect people and places, create liveable neighbourhoods, transform the school run and deliver a happier, healthier commute.

Sustrans is a registered charity no. 326550 (England and Wales) SCO39263 (Scotland).

Established in 2001, Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd (‘Eunomia’) is a Bristol-based, independent consultancy and an appointed advisor to many types of organisations including the European Commission, central government, local and regional authorities;