Air Questionable Plan

 

The Government’s recently released consultation draft Air Quality Plan is more of an Air Questionable Plan. Why? I may be down to one blog a month these days, but this is a question I’m keen to answer.

It is often written that people struggle with environmental risks, because they are not imminent, proximate, and/or visible. That’s why people may feel climate change is an important issue to address, but struggle to be motivated. Air pollution is more local, but it’s potential, personal, health impacts may be even longer-term than the climactic increase in floods and droughts.

So it was easy for the Government to drag its proverbial heels until environmental groups forced its hand through the courts. Then they published a consultation Plan. Which I read. And, with my fairly extensive knowledge of local transport and my less extensive, but still greater than average awareness of air pollution, realised the Government was still dragging its heels. And its exhaust pipes.

Local air pollution is not a new problem. When I worked in local government, we were measuring, monitoring, and making plans to mitigate a decade ago. We even wrote a business case to introduce a Low Emission Zone. One that charged certain polluting vehicle types, but also invested in walking, cycling, and public transport. One not dissimilar to what the Government calls in its consultation document a ‘charging’ Clean Air Zone. But in 2010, as the Conservatives came to power, our business case was pulled. We continued with plans to improve sustainable transport, but we were not encouraged to resubmit any charging measures in the new rounds of challenge funding. Charging was part of the war on the motorist (including freight) that the new Government strove to roll back.

Fast-forward seven years, and it looks like anything too anti-motorist will still be discouraged. Or at least framed to ensure that possible political fall-out is local, not national. Charging is only to be implemented as a last resort. Somehow local authorities are supposed to encourage and support the mass retro-fit of polluting vehicles instead if at all possible. Or engineer their replacement with cleaner models. Even if many of the fleets in question are privately owned and operated. Local governments are also going to have to either use their own shrinking resources or compete for funding, spending money building business cases before they win, or don’t win, a penny.

In building the business case for Clean Air Zone measures, local authorities will also be aware that the Government’s guidance takes a very minimalist approach to the role of increasing the share of other modes like walking and cycling in improving air quality. It lumps all the alternative modes together as one measure in its list of eight , whilst four bullet points are given over to ways to reduce vehicle emissions without reducing vehicles. One of these four is: “Improving road layouts and junctions to optimise traffic flow, for example by considering removal of road humps”, a measure that is repeated as the first suggestion in a paragraph on “targeted infrastructure investment”.  What signal does this send? The safety of pedestrians and cyclists is secondary to improving the flow of traffic, despite traffic being the source of the pollution?

Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere that air pollution is measured as much by the population breathing it in as by the absolute amounts of pollutant present. That’s why so little of the strategic road network – less than 1% – is affected. There aren’t many schools and hospitals with motorway frontage. So why is there no mention of removing traffic entirely outside such sensitive receptors? Why not more pedestrianisation or “filtered permeability” with physically blocked streets to prevent through traffic?

I’m not saying that I have all the answers. And even this consultation document admits charging might be necessary. But neither do I think I’m jumping to conclusions to suggest that the draft Air Quality Plan favours the motorist over anyone who gets around in a different way, and pushes responsibility onto local governments, especially all those polluted, urban ones, many of a redder political persuasion. It makes it the whole commitment to reducing air pollution look rather… Questionable.

 

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.

 

VW Emissions Scandal: I should have known

The special software was a surprise. The particular company caught cheating on their exams even more so. But the implications for the air we breathe wasn’t. Or shouldn’t have been.

I should have known. I shouldn’t have bought or bought into the fairy-tale of low-emission, environmentally-friendly diesel automobiles. But I did.

Why did I buy into it? Advertising? Government subsidies in the form of lower taxes? The thought of how much more affordable a decent family car would be to buy and run? All of the above.

Why shouldn’t I have bought it? I work in the industry. I should have known.

Okay, so maybe I’ve managed more projects involving bicycles and travel planning than tailpipes and fuel types. And I’m not that knowledgeable about cars generally. I could never identify make and model in a police or emissions fraud line-up. Still, I should have known.

Why? I once did a fair bit of work developing a business case for a Low Emission Zone. I was investigating it as a potential solution not to a carbon emissions problem, but local air quality ‘exceedance’ issues. I was familiar enough with the EU regulations on emission standards to use their strange neologism, ‘exceedance’. Basically, it referred to how much the levels of nitrous oxides and particulates, the emissions that diesel engines produce in greater quantities than petrol engines, exceeded the target levels the EU had set for minimising health impacts on or at ‘receptors’. Another favourite word in air quality monitoring, receptors were either people or places where people would be regularly exposed to pollution. Places like schools and hospitals and homes.

In common with too many places in the UK, Reading has multiple sites of exceedance, which were monitored as part of a single air quality management area. I went to a seminar at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to learn about local government’s responsibilities on these issues. I completed a one-day course on the science of air quality. I visited Transport for London to learn about their Low Emission Zone. I even met some bona fide scientists at Kings College London who had plenty of graphs and jargon to verify their credentials.

Perhaps I did not understand every molecule of what those scientists had to tell me, but I did absorb some key concepts from all this research.

First, as the bar was raised for manufacturers to reduce both carbon emissions and other pollutants, the science and technology to make it all work became more challenging. This is because some chemical processes and efficiencies that might decrease carbon emissions could increase emissions of other pollutants and vice versa. I also learned that the background levels of nitrous oxides in many places were increasing due to greater ownership and use of diesel-powered, private vehicles. The result: failure to meet targets. This was unexpected by experts because it indicated that newer vehicles manufactured under stricter standards were still emitting significantly more in real life than they had in their pre-release testing.

So I knew, at least six years ago, that something was going wrong if vehicles met standards at the testing stage, but weren’t so environmentally-friendly in situations with your average person behind the wheel. Was technology not quite keeping up with those standards? Why reduce carbon emissions, if it made local air quality worse?

Yet, as far as I’m aware, no one suggested that the manufacturers and perhaps the testers, might be fiddling with the results. It didn’t occur to me. VW took me by surprise, but I wasn’t surprised by the implications. Only annoyed that I hadn’t seen it coming. I should have known.