There has been little improvement in air quality over the past 20 years as transport planners focus on preventing road deaths, according to a study. Two university academics set out to try to understand why there has been little improvement in air pollution concentrations from road transport since the UK signed up to international air quality standards in 1995, as part of the Environment Act.
Dr Tim Chatterton and Prof Graham Parkhurst, from the Bristol-based University of the West of England, said their work concluded that UK transport planners were not taking the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account.
They said that current figures estimate that more than 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution in the UK yet planners focus on reducing road accidents.
“Air pollution is perhaps the grossest manifestation of a general failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account,” said Prof Parkhurst.
“Currently air pollution is a shared priority between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport but shared priority does not mean equal priority.
“Environmental managers only identify and monitor the problems. Insufficient relevant priority has been given within the sector responsible for most relevant emissions – transport policy and planning – which has instead prioritised safety and economic growth.”
The academics also claimed there were limited regulatory and financial support for alternative transport and for local authorities seeking to introduce air improvement measures such as low emissions zones.
They also said there was a strong social equity issue, with households in poorer areas more exposed to much higher levels of air pollution, while contributing much less to the problem, mainly through driving less.
Prof Parkhurst and Dr Chatterton also called for poor air quality to be promoted as a public health issue.
“Air pollution-related morbidity and mortality are at epidemic levels and, although less obvious, are more significant than road transport collisions as a cause of death and injury,” Dr Chatterton said.
“Politicians at local and national levels must treat poor air quality as a public health priority, placing clear emphasis on the severity of the problem and the limitations of technological fixes.
“Existing approaches that focus on individual, voluntary, behaviour change and technological innovations are not sufficient to tackle poor air quality.
The findings are due to be presented at Royal Geographical Society annual international conference in London on Wednesday.