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New modelling tool measures impact of cycling and walking schemes on air quality

Deniz Huseyin
06 December 2017

Cycling and walking infrastructure schemes are an effective way of improving air quality, leading to fewer deaths and significant savings to the economy, according to a new modelling tool. 

Environmental consultancy Eunomia developed the tool in partnership with the charity Sustrans to calculate the potential contribution of walking and cycling to reducing PM10 and NOx emissions.

Meeting targets to double cycling and increase walking, as set out in the government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS), would result in annual savings to the economy of £567m in England, the model estimates. Meeting CWIS targets would also mean more than 8,300 premature deaths from air pollution would be prevented over ten years.

In Scotland, meanwhile, improving air quality would result in savings of £364m a year if the vision of 10% of everyday journeys by bike set out in Scotland’s Cycling Action Plan were achieved. It would also mean nearly 4,000 premature deaths would be avoided over a decade, the model estimates.

An area-wide analysis of Southampton found that a 10% drop in car use would result in air quality benefits to residents of £477,000 a year from a reduction in nitrogen dioxide. 

The UK has repeatedly failed to meet legal limits for NO2, Sustrans points out. This prompted the government to call on the 29 councils in England that are repeatedly breaking legal air quality limits to produce draft Clean Air Plans by March 2018 and final plans in November 2018. The government has created a £220m Clean Air Fund to help the councils develop their plans. The devolved nations are also trialling a number of different plans to improve air quality including their own versions of Clean Air Zones. 

Sustrans has urged the government to “actively encourage” councils to invest in walking and cycling infrastructure in their Clean Air Plans and to ensure the capital and revenue funding in the Clean Air Fund is spent on cycling and walking schemes.

Increasing levels of cycling and walking by delivering the CWIS would achieve over five times more savings to the economy through improved air quality over a ten-year period than the government’s planned Clean Air Zones in England, said Sustrans.

Eunomia analysed air pollution impacts of 19 Sustrans schemes that all involved infrastructure improvements across England and Scotland. It also calculated the potential air pollution benefits associated with undertaking a wide-scale intervention across a city.

The government should be more joined up in properly linking the Clean Air Plan with the CWIS and the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans - providing greater funding for these plans to help tackle air pollution, said Sustrans.

“Road transport is responsible for 80% of NOx pollution where legal limits are being broken,” said Sustrans. “But it’s not just burning fuel that causes the problem. In London, where there is good data, 45% of the particulate matter comes from tyre and brake wear – so even if we switched all the vehicles to electric, we’d still have a damaging amount of very fine dust as a result of all the traffic.”

Xavier Brice, Sustrans’ chief executive, 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 to prioritise investment in active travel as part of wider urgent action to make air safe again.”


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