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Hitting UK cycling targets can prevent thousands of deaths from air pollution – new findings

cyclists in protected cycle lane in Manchester

Walking and cycling have a huge role to play in tackling the air quality crisis

4 December 2017

More than 12,000 premature deaths from air pollution would be prevented over ten years, if both England and Scotland reached their respective official goals to get more people to walk and cycle. In addition, there would be £9.31 billion worth of benefits to the economy over the same time period.

Sustrans, in partnership with environmental consultancy Eunomia, has today released a first of its kind model to measure air quality benefits from both: reducing motor emissions due to shifting to walking or cycling, and the changes in personal exposure to air pollution.

The model aims to support local authorities in making the case for investment in walking and cycling and estimates the contribution of active travel in reducing air pollution – and the subsequent benefits to public health.

It found that if the targets to double journeys by bike and increase walking by 300 stages per person in the England’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy were met, this would prevent more than 8,300 premature deaths from air pollution and would result in £5.67 billion in benefits to the public purse over ten years – through the avoided costs associated with poor air quality, including NHS treatment for respiratory diseases.

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.

- Ann Ballinger, lead modeller and air quality expert at Eunomia

Equally, if the vision of 10% of everyday journeys by bike set out in Scotland’s Cycling Action Plan was realised, nearly 4,000 premature deaths would be avoided and £3.64 billion of savings would accrue over a decade. 

The gains would be even bigger if wider benefits to health and wellbeing from increased physical activity were included.

Xavier Brice, CEO for Sustrans, said:

“At a time when road transport is responsible for the majority of air quality limit breaches in the UK, it has never been more important to reduce the number of motorised vehicles on our roads.

“The new findings reiterate that walking and cycling has a huge role to play in tackling the air quality crisis that causes tens of thousands of premature deaths every year. If we are to make a major modal shift, we need to provide a network of direct protected cycle routes on roads in addition to quieter routes across the UK.

“We’re urging governments at all levels to include funding for walking and cycling infrastructure in their Clean Air Plans and the UK Government to prioritise investment in active travel as part of wider urgent action to make air safe again.”

Every year, tens of thousands of early deaths can be linked to breathing polluted air. The UK has repeatedly broken legal limits of nitrogen dioxide, derived mainly from diesel vehicles in the last few years. Many towns and cities are now also failing World Health Organisation's guidelines for particulate matter, 45% of which comes from car tyre and brake wear and won’t be reduced by a move to electric vehicles.

In England, 29 local authorities that are breaking legal air quality limits are to produce Clean Air Plans by November 2018, whilst the devolved nations are trialling a number of different plans to improve air quality. The Scottish Government, for instance, is proposing to introduce Low Emission Zones in four cities by 2020 and air quality management areas (AQMAs) by 2023 across the country.

Ann Ballinger, lead modeller and air quality expert at Eunomia, 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.”

For further information about the new model and the accompanying research Air Quality Benefits of Active Travel go to: www.sustrans.org.uk/airquality


Notes to editors

For further information and to request interviews contact:

Anna Galandzij, Senior Press Officer at Sustrans, 07557 915 648, [email protected]; Amy Jones, Press and Media Officer at Sustrans, 07768 035318, [email protected]

  1. The cycling and walking infrastructure schemes used in the research are documented in the full report, many factors were taken into account when working with these samples including:
    • Number of participants
    • Traffic-free proportions of the scheme
    • Whether counterfactual essential journeys were taken by bus
    • Location of the scheme
    • Population density of the surrounding area.
  2. Connect 2, a short route from Anderstone to Glasgow city centre, is calculated to provide £104,820 in air quality-related health benefits each year. This economic benefit is achieved due to high numbers of people choosing swap cars for cycling as a result of safe, segregated infrastructure, but also because 72% of the route is located away from traffic, and therefore has lower exposure levels.
  3. In Southampton, which has a population of 249,000, a city wide model found that a 10% drop in car use, brought about a 0.5 per cent reduction in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) suggesting health benefits to all residents of £477,000 per year. This value would be even higher if the particulate matter was also factored in.
  4. CWIS targets include: total number of cycle stages made each year to increase from 0.8 billion stages in 2013 to 1.6 billion stages in 2025; increase walking, where walking activity is measured as the total number of walking stages per person per year, to 300 stages.
  5. 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).
  6. 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. www.eunomia.co.uk