The Defra Air Quality Plan: Forget the Flashy Headlines, What’s Really Needed is Support for a Fundamental Change to the Way We Travel…

The new Defra plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations was published this week. The plan proposes targeted actions to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen including through promoting public transport, cycling and walking, and actions to accelerate road vehicle fleet turnover to cleaner vehicles. Disappointingly, the majority of the actions, and the much-publicised commitment to end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040, focus on tinkering with the motor vehicle industry and accepts our current culture and understanding of transport. There is nothing new on promoting walking, cycling, and ways to reduce vehicle trips. At Tranquil City, we believe that a fundamental change is required in the way we live, work and travel in order to reduce air and noise pollution and exposure to it, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the impacts of climate change. We are working on several projects to encourage active travel in London and are aiming to expand our reach and influence over the coming years.

This week saw the publication of The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plan-for-roadside-no2-concentrations-published). The plan states that poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. It is recognised that addressing road transport emissions presents the most significant opportunity to tackle the nitrogen dioxide problem. The focus is on setting new policies and incentives to promote new technology and innovation, speed up the move to cleaner vehicles and support the industrial strategy to deliver cleaner air for UK towns and cities. The plan proposes targeted actions to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen including through promoting public transport, cycling and walking, and actions to accelerate road vehicle fleet turnover to cleaner vehicles.

However, there is very little focus, and nothing new, in the plan on supporting walking and cycling. The Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cycling-and-walking-investment-strategy), which identifies £1.2 billion which may be invested in cycling and walking from 2016-21, is mentioned. Whilst this a welcome source of investment, this strategy, which was published in April is not something introduced as part of the plan. Also, mentioned is a programme of technical and strategic support to assist local authorities in the development of their Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans. An expression of interest process was launched alongside the publication of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy in April 2017.

The majority of actions detailed in the plan focus on driving improvements in technology reducing emissions from existing vehicle trips. This includes the highly-publicised commitment to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. This seems an unnecessary, ill-considered and attention-grabbing measure. This proposal is largely an irrelevance in relation to nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Although there has been much controversy around the real-world emissions of diesel cars, and it is clear that they do not perform to the required standard, progressively tighter emission standards have certainly led to reductions in emissions. Vehicle testing regimes are being updated, so it is to be expected that by 2040, they will be performing close to the emission standard, and emissions of oxides of nitrogen will be very low (as they are currently for the latest petrol cars). The nitrogen dioxide limit values will not be exceeded in 2040. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations will be at a level that is highly unlikely to have a detrimental effect on health. Widespread uptake of electric cars would be required to replace the conventional cars. At present, the country seems absolutely unprepared for this. Only a few weeks ago, a National Grid stated that widespread use of electric vehicles could result in an additional 8GW of demand without smart charging (http://fes.nationalgrid.com/fes-document/fes-2017), over two times the capacity of the new reactors being built at Hinckley Point.

So, why are we so disappointed with the lack of any new, tangible measures to support greater walking, cycling and use of public transport? The plan focuses on tinkering with the motor vehicle industry and accepts our current culture and understanding of transport. Even with more electric cars, resources still have to be procured and processed to make the cars, and energy has to be generated. We believe that a much more fundamental change in society is required. There should be a much greater emphasis on reducing private vehicle trips. This will help reduce air and noise pollution, and perhaps even more critically, reduce carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change. The plan could have been used to help government, companies and individuals answer much deeper questions:

  • Why (Do I need to make this trip? Could I do this activity somewhere closer to home?);
  • How (Do I need to drive? Could I walk? Are there new public transport options?);
  • When (Do I need to travel at rush hour? Could I allow my staff to use a more flexible work schedule? Should HGVs be allowed to move around at rush hour); and
  • Where (Can I change my walking route to reduce exposure to pollution? If I need to drive, can I change my route to reduce congestion?)

At Tranquil City, we believe that a fundamental change is required in the way we live, work and travel in order to improve air quality and reduce exposure to air and noise pollution, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the impacts of climate change. We are working on several projects to encourage active travel in London and are aiming to expand our reach and influence over the coming years. Our first experiment with this is our development of the Tranquil Pavement, a map that encourages an exploratory approach to navigating the city, seeking tranquillity, prioritising sense of place and relative low pollution pathways. We believe this is a way to encourage active transport, increasing the appeal of walking and cycling for city dwellers. Follow our blog here and our Twitter feed @tranquilcityapp for updates.

Tranquil Pavement
The Tranquil Pavement – A map that encourages active exploration of tranquillity in the London.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s