Poor air quality is recognised as a widespread problem but attempts to deal it with are failing


The air we breathe in many places is unacceptably polluted. We live with it because we have to but there is increasing recognition of the harmful effects of poor air quality. There have been huge steps in the right direction and what we face now is some distance from the era when everything was coal-fired and in consequence our cities were covered by layers of black pollution. This was evident from many well-known buildings such as Westminster Abbey which had accumulated decades of filth and were various shades of grime. Here and elsewhere, removing the layers of pollution revealed their true colours, a transformation. We moved to lead-free petrol some years ago and many households and businesses converted to gas and electricity. We have now moved on from coal-fired power stations and gas-fired heating systems are likely to be the next target.

Missing the point

Today the pollution is there but worryingly we can’t see it so obviously. There is greater awareness of the problem and measurement supports the view that exceedances of some pollutants have surpassed legal limits in many communities. One of the major causes is vehicle emissions for road traffic. Buses and coaches have cleaned up their act with remarkable success compared with the automotive industry. Sadly, all the benefits of better engines and exhaust systems have been wiped out by the adoption of bigger cars. Usually unnecessary and generally ugly, big cars are the current statement of social status even though they don’t fit on our roads and cause more pollution than the cars they replaced.

Roald Dahl summed it up brilliantly in a 1991 publication created to warn children of the dangers of misbehaviour on the railway. In this narrative, he takes the opportunity to sum up the wider context:

‘Our roads were clean and uncrowded, and in our cities the air was not polluted with gases from a million exhaust-pipes. It was a lovely world to live in, but now the motor-car has ruined it. It has also, to some extent, ruined us. Instead of walking to school as we always used to do in the olden days, even if it was a three mile journey, nearly every child of today gets taken there in a car. Everyone goes everywhere by car these days, and perhaps in a few hundred years from now our great-great-great grandchildren will be born with hardly any legs at all because they won’t have any use for them.

‘The flood of motor-cars and lorries and trucks onto our roads in recent years is a tragedy for nature and for the environment and for our health.’
(Roald Dahl’s guide to railway safety, published by British Railways Board)

Emissions matter but there has not been a reaction on anything like the scale required to address it effectively. There must be many who hope all the fuss will go away but it won’t and in what has been declared as a climate emergency, action is muted and sporadic. Highway authorities have been challenged to do something about the problem but to date have been offered little by central government. However, in an attempt to clear up the problem, the Department for Transport has come up with a range of low emission zone options intended to improve air quality. In effect, this is a road user charging scheme by the back door – this could be really effective but it isn’t because its scope is hopelessly misguided. Some authorities are being pushed into something they don’t want which is bound to be unpopular.

Effective targets

This all stems from the definition of the problem. Road traffic generates harmful emissions and it is really easy to point the finger at large vehicles such as buses and trucks. Imposing charges on delivery vehicles is counter-productive because the costs will be passed on to the consumer; commercial vehicles don’t drive around for fun, they have a purpose and most of what we consume involves carrying it by road. Clearly if people want cleaner air, they will have to pay for it. Similarly, buses and coaches will be forced to pay penalties unless they have replaced all their fleet with the most recent specification of low emission vehicles. It isn’t clear where they will get the money from, particularly after a gruelling few months in which their income has virtually disappeared. The biggest contributor to the problem is cars – this seems to have not sunk in with the creators of the emission zones. Either they simply don’t understand that buses are part of the solution and that cars should be the main target or they overlook this as an inconvenient truth. Presenting a policy of charging motorists to access certain areas because they are polluting it would no doubt be seen as a challenge to people’s rights but people also have a right not to be slowly poisoned by others. Unless those behind low emission zones in their various forms wake up to the fact that they need to target car use, then the battle will be lost.

The biggest contributor to the problem is cars – this seems to have not sunk in with the creators of the emission zones

There are other areas for which a programme of improvement needs to be defined, notably shipping and aviation. These are difficult in the sense that dealing with them might upset someone, particularly if it is construed that they are both essential components of a successful economy. Massive ships have massive engines that consume vast quantities of fuel and emit huge amounts. This isn’t confined to open waters however, ending up in the global atmosphere but it can also affect cities with ports, not least because many vessels keep the engines running constantly. This is the case in Southampton where cruise liners use their engines as generators when in port, partly because there isn’t a land supply great enough to feed them. We are told that liners and cargo ships are all good for the economy but it has become apparent recently that some of them could hardly be considered essential. Turning to aviation, there is not currently an alternative to the astonishing fuel consumption and emissions of the sector. Most of this is discretionary non-essential travel, around three quarters of fights being made for non-work purposes, although many routes also carry freight consignments. This particular source of pollutants has hit the buffers recently but will probably rebuild its market at some point even though some expensive planes have been put into cold storage or consigned to history. Of course, government won’t admit that aviation is a sector that needs to curb its emissions in case it stifles the perceived right to fly. The people who suffer most from climate change are those in the world’s poorest communities which explains a lot.

Managing demand

This all points towards demand management as a means of controlling consumption, We have learned over many years that building more and more road capacity is a hiding to nothing on the basis that it also encourages more car movements. Unfortunately, this fundamental observation continues to elude successive governments for whom priorities are set by where their next votes will come from. Because capacity of transport networks is finite, there is no option but to manage demand more effectively. This might mean quotas for flying, finding better ways of powering maritime activity and creating new ways of managing road traffic. It is accepted that traffic congestion adversely affects the economy and environment but measures to address the latter seem to be toxic. It will upset some because they have got used to unrestrained car use but the ‘polluter pays’ principle is difficult to argue against.

Politics takes over which may result in legal challenges and the consequent bitterness

Fiscal measures such as charging to use low emission zones, workplace parking levies and distance-based road pricing are not as unreasonable as might appear at first sight. The context is that revenues from car use are fading with newer vehicles having lower vehicle taxes which electrification and other emerging applications will erode over time. This is coupled with the illogical stifling of the fuel price escalator, a position created by politics not by common sense. A fairer road taxation system is needed and it seems entirely reasonable that those who consume most should pay most. This may have a disproportional impact for rural residents but they may have to accept that this is the price (literally) for living in more peripheral locations. If part of the revenue generated can be redirected towards the provision of local bus services, then they may have more than one option. There needs to be a widespread consensus that vehicle emissions need to be dealt with and that penalizing essential vehicles such as buses and coaches is not a credible approach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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