Change is in the air for UK cities

Vinny Naga

Associate Director

There is a growing consensus of the need to promote sustainable travel to help cut air pollution levels and improve public health in UK cities. Now the impacts of COVID-19 have given added impetus to local authorities to take the lead and innovate to improve air quality.

Air pollution is recognised as the top environmental risk to human health in the UK, with research estimating that it contributes to as many as 40,000 premature deaths a year. A preliminary study by scientists at the University of Cambridge is also indicating a link between air pollution levels and the severity of COVID-19.

To tackle high pollution levels in cities, the UK government’s clean air strategy paved the way for local authorities to introduce ‘clean air zones’ (CAZs), with the potential to impose charges to deter the most polluting vehicles and their nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions.

Now COVID-19’s consequences have strengthened the already powerful environmental and public health arguments for action - to reduce air pollution levels across the UK. Central and local government, businesses and individuals all need to take on board the lessons and do things differently. But at a community level, it has also added to the complexity in developing air quality strategies, requiring local authorities to think innovatively and learn from others who are already challenging orthodoxies around modes of transport and travel behaviours.

Incentivise, don’t penalise

As local authorities look to help local businesses and communities recover from lockdown, an early priority will be to encourage office workers, shoppers and visitors to return to city centres, while ensuring those using public transport, cycling and walking remain within safe levels for social distancing.

To address concerns around social distancing and overcrowding on public transport, local authorities can consider measures to manage people movement, such as staggering start and end times for some schools and/or encouraging businesses to do the same for workplaces. The unprecedented shift to homeworking during COVID-19 has shown productivity can remain high for certain working groups and should be considered the norm in the future.

Focusing on incentivising sustainable travel choices and using mitigation measures to lessen the cost to vehicle owners of making changes are key considerations.

Mitigation measures could range from free park-and-ride services to scrappage schemes encouraging city centre businesses to swap the most polluting vehicles for ultra-low emission ones.

A number of European cities are already introducing incentives to promote active travel and facilitate social distancing, including pop-up routes for walking and cycling. In Milan, 35km of streets will be equipped this summer with low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 20mph speed limits and priority streets for cyclists and pedestrians under the ambitious Strade Aperte plan. While in Paris, new measures will include re-allocating 50km of routes that are usually reserved for cars to cyclists.

Across the UK funding opportunities are also starting to be explored. Temporary walking and cycling routes are set to be introduced across Scotland, backed by £10 million of funding from the Scottish government. Pop-up cycle lines, wider pavements and safer road junctions are also among the interventions planned in England, following the government's announcement of a £250 million emergency active travel fund, which is the first stage of a scheduled £2 billion investment.

Lessons for air quality strategies

Five key lessons are emerging from tackling COVID-19 that could help local authorities in the UK as they shape their air quality strategies:

  • Setting targets: Analysis of recent experience will help to give a clearer picture of what interventions are needed to achieve air quality targets at a local level. This will help local authorities to understand what levers to push and how far
  • Streamlining governance: Measures needed to tackle COVID-19 have been implemented using accelerated governance at a local and national government level. This could pave the way to streamline and improve future processes
  • Targeting of support in CAZs: Local authorities may now be better informed on where they need to target support packages of mitigations and exemptions offered to businesses based or operating in a CAZ
  • Working together: COVID-19 has shown that is not sufficient for local authorities to act in isolation. Birmingham has been bringing forward plans for a CAZ, but nearby Sandwell, Dudley and Wolverhampton have not been mandated to act. As the West Midlands was a hotspot for COVID-19, collaborative action is needed across neighbouring authorities
  • Drawing on data: Data is key in driving strategy, although work needs to be done in establishing digital infrastructure and parameters around data ownership, collection and use. To date, data has come from piecemeal sources, such as public transport operators, and use has been restricted by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). A more comprehensive digital infrastructure and data approach could see decisions on cycle routes, for example, drawing on data gathered from the GPS from cyclists’ cameras.

COVID-19 has raised the stakes in the quest to improve air quality in UK cities. As local authorities plan for the future, they have the potential to build on current learning, gain an improved understanding of the potential impact of interventions and better harness government support to enhance air quality strategies. The present adversity points the way ahead.

Further resources

Please visit our COVID-19 response page for all of our resources relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the construction sector.

For further information contact:

Vinny Naga
Associate Director