Guest blog: How can a reduction in travelling impact pollution levels in the UK? - By Stella Amoateng Asante - GreenMatch

According to the Autumn Budget 2016, the chancellor of the Exchequer in the United Kingdom announced plans to invest £390 million into road and transport infrastructure by 2020-21. The funds are expected to ease road congestion's and reduce vehicle emissions under what the government term as ‘strategic road network’. This will also support the increase of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs), renewable fuels, connected and autonomous infrastructure.

Among other benefits, it is hoped that this will foster new ways of travel and commuting that will in turn address the ongoing air pollution problem that the UK is battling. The investment comprises the following: £80 million towards ULEVs charging infrastructure; £150 million to supporting low emission buses and taxis; £20 million for innovation of alternative aviation and heavy goods vehicle fuels; and, £100 million for a new UK CAV testing infrastructure.

Poor air quality currently costs the UK government £16 billion annually due to adverse effects on the environment that leads to poor health and reduced labour productivity. Moreover, a report by the World Health Organisation (2016) has uncovered that eleven urban areas in UK have exceeded the safety limits of air pollution. Among other contributing factors is the rising level of vehicle emission. This includes the release of pollutants such as: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, fine dust particles, nitrogen oxides, and unburnt hydrocarbons.

Government health experts agrees that “there is a consistent, though modest, association between exposure to traffic and asthma prevalence in children”. Research on the relationship between road transport and air pollution in the UK shows that when particulate matter levels exceed the safety limits, then road traffic's contribution ranges between 75-85 percent. In London alone, traffic is responsible for 99 percent of carbon mono oxide emissions, 76 percent of nitrogen oxides and 90 percent of hydrocarbons.

In addition, road transport is responsible for 22% of CO2 emissions in the UK, resulting from around 34 million motor vehicles in the UK, of which 28 million are cars. Subsequently, reducing the amount of travels particularly by private vehicles, will prove effective in decreasing the problem of air pollution. Thus, improving road transport is seen to be one of the ways in which air pollution can be curbed and improve public health and environmental wellbeing.

The effects of this predicament is visible as the government now accepts that between 12,000 and 24,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. Researchers have found that people living in streets where there is heavy traffic are likely to suffer more illnesses. Similar studies have also shown that there is a relationship between the amount of traffic in an area and people with respiratory problems.

What Can the UK Government do to Decrease the Pollution Levels Through Transport?

The government and environmental activists have, for a long time, initiated campaigns to encourage individuals to use public transport in place of private vehicles in order to ease congestion and lower emissions. One of the motives is based on the fact that the number of passengers that can be carried on buses or trains are significantly higher than personal cars, making public transport more environmentally friendly; thus, a better substitute to curbing air pollution problem. Yet, large pockets of the public still opt to use their personal cars.

The arguments spans across the following considerations:

Private Cars vs Public Transport

Private vehicles are widely perceived to offer greater flexibility, ease and convenience. Contributing to this perception are factors such as high transport fares, poor customer service, and time delays negatively associated with public transport. In addition, using the bus requires more commuting time as the bus will not necessarily always stop at one’s exact destination. Thus, the merit of public transport needs to be pitched beyond environmental benefits but must also be made to address public behavioral patterns.

To encourage public transport, the government has taken action in introducing initiatives that take into great consideration affordability, comfort and ease of movement. The introduction of smart ticketing in rail transport to expand capacity and improve reliability is one of these initiatives. The government has also allocated £450 million in order to effect a contactless payments that allows for smooth connections across different modes of transport within one’s journey.

Approximately £80 million will be allocated in the cities where the system is expected to receive the most patronage. Commuters will be given the option of a ‘pay as go’ payment systems are well as pre-purchases. This falls under the 'four Cs challenge' that the UK Rail identified as improvement points. The 4C’s are namely: to improve customer experience, cut ticketing costs, to increase the carrying capacity of passengers and to reduce carbon consumption.

Efficiency in Vehicle Usage

Again, the public should be better educated on choosing more environmentally friendly cars. So, while not all people may choose to park their cars in favour of buses or trains, the public can be encouraged to drive fuel-efficient vehicles that are well-maintained resulting in lower emissions. Cars with low emissions have lower running costs such as fuel costs as well as less car tax and company car tax levels as a result of the lower CO2 emissions.

Cyclists and Pedestrians

The government also needs to assert a strong hand in addressing road infrastructure such that cities are made more accessible and friendly for cyclists and pedestrians. Research shows that up to 60% of people who took part in a poll in the UK considered it unsafe to cycle. Contributing to the perception of danger are high volumes accident reports involving cyclists.

Eventually, it is evident that the public should be encouraged in using commercial transport options, which will ensure the minimum use of vehicles on the roads.The UK government also needs to boost public confidence in alternative options such as cycling and walking.

Similarly, the UK government can set a national traffic reduction target or put down measures to assess that the reduction in national traffic target is attained. Again, tightening engine technology and fuel quality standards will ensure the use of cars that are more environmentally friendly, and in effect decrease air pollution.

Last Autumn Budget’s investment in road and transport is therefore a positive enforcement that will provide financial aid to adequately deploy solutions in this regard; hence, reduce the persisting air pollution problem caused by travel.