Our position on improving air quality

Cyclists in London help keep our air clean

This policy position was published by Sustrans in December 2016.


  • Air pollution is damaging our environment and our health. Up to 40,000 early deaths are attributable to air pollution each year in the UK and road transport is responsible for 80% of the pollution where legal limits are being broken.
  • Cycling and walking can be an important part of the solution alongside shifting to cleaner vehicles.
  • If we are to reduce air pollution to safe limits, ambitious targets for modal shift to walking, cycling and public transport must be set and underpinned by significant investment to achieve them. Furthermore, we must take measures to reduce levels of motor traffic, while incentivising cleaner vehicles for essential journeys that cannot be shifted.


Air pollution is the term given for a number of different substances suspended in the air that are harmful to human, animal and plant life as well as the built environment.

  • Road transport is responsible for 80% of the pollution where legal limits are being broken.[1]
  • The Royal College of Physicians estimated that air pollution shortens the lives of between 29,000-40,000 people each year in the UK.[2] Only smoking contributes to more early deaths.
  • Air pollution particularly affects children and older people because of their age as well as those with existing respiratory conditions. [3]
  • Air pollution has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia. [4]
  • Air pollution is closely linked to greenhouse gas emissions, fuelling dangerous climate change.[5]
  • Air pollution contributes to health inequalities because deprived communities are often in areas with higher levels of pollution or near busy roads.

What Sustrans thinks

The consequences for our health and environment from air pollution are avoidable.  If we improve air quality, we improve quality of life for everyone.

We need action from across Governments at all levels

Overall the sources of air pollution are largely beyond the control of individuals and require local, national and international government to take action. We need a cross-government approach that maximises the co-benefits for physical activity, health inequalities, congestion and climate change. This requires action from across transport, public health and planning departments.

This must prioritise shifting everyday trips to walking, cycling and public transport Shifting every day travel away from motor vehicles, particularly diesel vehicles, to walking, cycling and public transport has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of pollution we create, improving air quality in the UK, while bringing health benefits to those that switch their journeys.

Providing incentives for cleaner vehicles for trips that cannot be shifted

At the same time, we need to see action to incentivise cleaner vehicles for essential journeys by road while reducing overall traffic levels, so that there are both fewer and cleaner motor vehicles. This requires investment, support and a clear legal framework from UK Government, and action at regional and local levels.

We need a new Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act came into force 60 years ago, tackling the pollution caused by fires in people’s homes. We now face a challenge on a similar scale largely as a result of motor traffic. We support Client Earth in calling for a new Clean Air Act of the scale and scope reflecting the challenges we face today. Such an act would:

  • Tackle the sources of modern air pollution such as diesel.
  • Safeguard the legal protections that we could be stripped of on leaving the EU.
  • Improve on existing legislation, both EU and domestic, to ensure that we enshrine the right to breathe clean air in law.

A broader network of Clean Air Zones, setting high standards to clean up our cities

Air pollution is most acute on busy and congested roads in our towns and cities. In London, for example, Oxford Street broke its annual pollution limit just four days into the year.[6] Sustrans believes that a broader network of Clean Air Zones is required.


[1] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2015) Improving air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities, UK Overview Document, December 2015

[2] Royal College of Physicians (2016) Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Report of a working party. London: RCP