Clearing the air: transforming transport policies for healthier lives and cleaner communities


Every day, an adult inhales a staggering 15,000 litres of air. Often this air is tainted with pollutants, so our very breath becomes a conduit for harm. These pollutants infiltrate our lungs, seeping into our bloodstream and journeying to vital organs like the brain. The consequences can be dire: asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and a shortened lifespan are among the most common afflictions we face. Recent findings even suggest that no organ in the human body remains unscathed.

The economic toll of air pollution from road transport is truly staggering, with the EU estimating annual costs at €67 billion to €80 billion, as revealed in a study commissioned by the European Public Health Alliance. An estimated 75% of these costs are linked to diesel cars and are primarily borne by taxpayers and customers paying insurance premiums.

Meanwhile, Sustrans* highlights a grim reality in the UK, attributing between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths annually to air pollution. Vulnerable populations, including individuals with chronic illnesses, the elderly, and children, bear a disproportionate burden of the health risks from toxic air pollution. Moreover, existing health inequalities are exacerbated by disparities in exposure levels, with residents living near busy roads and those in low socioeconomic circumstances facing heightened risks.

Given these alarming statistics, it is therefore imperative that transport policy address air quality and this should be front, and centre of emerging Local Transport Plans currently being developed by Local Authorities across the country. It could be argued that transport policy and accompanying plans and strategies hold the key to mitigating these externalities by implementing a range of measures aimed at reducing vehicle emissions. This includes advocating for cleaner fuels, bolstering public transport infrastructure, and promoting alternative modes such as cycling and walking. Stricter vehicle emissions standards and incentivising the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles further contribute to this effort. Beyond improving air quality, these initiatives foster sustainable and healthier transport methods, yielding multiple benefits for public health, the environment, and society at large.

The NHS continue to emphasise the pivotal role of curbing emissions across all transport modes in safeguarding air quality and addressing the exacerbated health disparities. Proactive measures not only alleviate avoidable health risks but also confront a critical contributor to societal inequalities, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive action within the transport sector.

This stance was fully supported by the UK government during the launch of its annual £6 million Local Air Quality Grant last year aimed at delivering projects to improve air quality. The UK government appeared to understand and support the importance of tackling such a vital issue for our society. Environment Minister Trudy Harrison said that “poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to human health and local authorities play a vital role in tackling it. This latest round of funding will support innovative projects across England that give communities the tools to limit their exposure and reduce pollution. [And] together, this will build on the significant improvements in air quality delivered by the government at a national level and deliver cleaner air for all.”

After an intense bidding process and government assessment, Local Authorities received notification two months ago regarding the success of their bids for a share of the fund. Subsequently, schemes and initiatives were meticulously developed, contracts were signed, partners were energised, and local communities informed. However, in a surprising turn of events, the government reversed its decision last week, abruptly withdrawing the promised funding. This is the first time that funding has been promised and later rescinded since the scheme began 27 years ago, with a DEFRA spokesperson saying that air quality minister Robbie Moore had ‘used his discretion…not to fund the Local Air Quality Grant scheme for the 2023-24 financial year.’

With government funding withdrawn, the responsibility now falls on mayors and local political leaders to prioritise initiatives from their limited resources, recognising the pivotal role they have in addressing the social costs from air pollution. However, without a sustained commitment from the central government, both financially and rhetorically, local leaders will increasingly struggle to tackle this national issue at the local level; especially on that extends well beyond the transport sector.

Despite these immediate funding challenges, there are still significant opportunities for the transport sector to capitalise on. Over the past 70 years, transport patterns have evolved significantly, presenting a dual opportunity for a recovery plan and an environmentally sustainable economy.

Public and private sector investment in a greener, higher-quality, and more active transport system will enable healthier lives for all. Such a commitment could bolster existing policy initiatives, supporting economic recovery efforts and fostering environmental sustainability. As political parties gear up for the forthcoming general election, prioritising air quality within their campaigns within their manifesto commitment could further underscore its importance on the national agenda.

Addressing the escalating air quality challenges in the UK demands proactive measures from any future government. Enhanced coordination between infrastructure projects and transport policies is paramount to diminish car dependency and bolster community cohesion. Additionally, continued support for Active Travel England in expanding safe, active travel networks and facilities is crucial, alongside accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, prioritising the availability, reliability, and affordability of public transport services is also a key component to encourage a shift away from car-centric travel behaviours and promote overall wellbeing.

While immediate action is imperative, the impending general election may delay substantive progress in the short term. Therefore, it falls upon the transport sector to push for ambitious modal shift targets, necessitating significant leadership and investment at local, regional, and national levels. Priority should be given to reducing motor traffic in areas with elevated air pollution levels, complemented by incentives for cleaner vehicles for essential journeys. By championing these initiatives, the transport sector can truly contribute to combating air pollution and fostering a healthier environment for all.

Tim Bellamy is the Acting Assistant Director – Transport at Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

Tim originally published this article on LinkedIn on 19th April 2024

* Sustrans (referenced in this article) feature amongst our speakers at EMISSIONS & AIR QUALITY Smart Class 2024 (Greencoat Place, London) on May 1st. Their presentation and hosted roundtable sessions will explore the links between air quality and active travel. If you meet the delegate qualification criteria described, register here for one of the last free places!   

Feature Image: Author sourced

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