Air Quality is on Us

The Royal Geographic Society issued a media release on a paper given at their annual conference last week: Study finds impact of road transport on air quality not given sufficient priority in UK transport planning.

The release was picked up by a national newspaper, The Guardian, by the Royal Town Planning Institute’s professional journal, The Planner, and probably plenty of other publications as well. Air pollution may be an unseen killer in our cities, but it is no longer unseen in the media. There was even a headline this week that air pollution is linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. Thus, as Chair of its Transport Planning Network, the RTPI asked me for a response to the academic study to put into The Planner. You can read it here. They cut down the two paragraphs that I sent them, but the first answer that actually came to mind was even shorter:

‘Harsh, but fair.’

If you read my blog, you are already aware that I am a transport planner by choice, career and professional identification. I have worked in both the public and private sectors and am now starting a PhD. First and foremost, I believe in the transformative power of transport planning to create a better society in reality, not just academic theory. So of course I found the conclusion of the study harsh.

However, I am also asthmatic. My asthma is manageable and I have never been hospitalised, but I am more aware than many when warnings of dangerous air pollution are issued. I tend to assume my asthma has more to do with pollen than pollution, having suffered from hayfever for as long as I can remember, yet I also empathise with those whose respiratory conditions are caused by poor air quality. It makes me think it is fair to ask transport planning to do more.

Furthermore, I am part of a small minority of transport planners who has, at some point, worked on the business case for a Low Emission Zone. At the time, I read up on particulates and receptors and undertook a little training on emissions and air quality. I even have the certificate to prove it. Therefore, I understand some of the complexities involved in how the increased use of diesel vehicles can reduce carbon emissions, but increase local air pollution. That’s why I wasn’t surprised by the VW Emissions Scandal last year – as I wrote in my blog at the time, I should have known. And yet, many transport planners aren’t well-informed in the intricacies of air pollution. If any environmental impact is prioritised by policy, it is carbon emissions, which might seem to be addressed by technologies like efficient diesel vehicles. Again, I thought it harsh to expect transport practitioners to manage air quality with neither training nor political support.

On the other hand, making a business case for a new project is a key task in transport planning, so any competent transport planner should be able to uncover the immense cost savings to health budgets of reducing air pollution. Air quality and other public health impacts, incidentally including road safety (pun intended), might take a back seat to carbon emissions and more particularly economic growth in transport appraisal guidance, but one doesn’t have to fully understand the morbidity and mortality calculations of reducing air pollution to achieve a much better benefit to cost ratio. Government may press for new roads and new housing, but transport planners are also taught that it takes good infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling balanced by restrictions on car use to achieve the environmental, societal and even economic benefits we strive for under the banner of sustainability. So if we aren’t pushing for such policies and action, well, once again criticism is fair enough.

Response to study? Harsh but fair. Recommendation? Transport planners, air quality is on us.


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