Opinion: Let’s work together, while staying apart, to tackle air pollution and congestion

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 147.

Matt Danish
Image as described adjacent
Image as described adjacent
If as many people as possible walk or cycle to work, there will be space on the roads for those who cannot avoid using cars and spare capacity for those who need to use public transport.
Could you cycle to a local shop or market stall and bring the groceries back on your bike? (Image: Terry Hanby, Cambridge Camera Club)
Image as described adjacent

After some difficult months trying to bring Covid-19 under control, it appears that we’re making small progress towards reducing the rate of infection. However, a new problem is starting to arise in some areas as lockdown is loosened: congestion. It’s a social dilemma: driving might seem safer than using public transport, but if all those who have access to a car use one then everyone gets stuck, including emergency vehicles, key workers and important deliveries. Even worse, the extra air pollution generated could potentially rekindle the worst effects of the virus: recent studies have shown an alarming link between poor air quality and virulence of the disease.

How do we avoid this dilemma? For some journeys, the use of a motor vehicle is unavoidable. The answer is that people need to work together, while staying apart, to stop the growth of unnecessary motor traffic. We’ve seen over the past two months that people can take collective action for the greater good. We’ve also seen warning signs from places like Wuhan, where the pandemic was tackled earlier, now battling even worse congestion and pollution than they had before.

Motor traffic flow is a chaotic system: it operates smoothly up to a certain point, then breaks down so badly that smooth flow can be restored only by a very steep reduction in the number of cars. The trick to maximising capacity is to moderate the number of cars on the road and keep it below the breaking point at all times.

In the next few months, the government will take further steps to loosen the lockdown. Public transport is not able to function normally, and is reduced to a small fraction of its capacity. The only other safe options for congestion and pollution reduction are working from home, or cycling or walking to work, for as many people as possible. That will leave space on the roads for people who cannot avoid using motor vehicles for essential journeys, and spare capacity on the limited public transport available. This must be reserved for people who absolutely need it, such as those who do not have the option to drive, walk or cycle.

Statistics show that 42% of all journeys are so short that many people could easily complete them within a 30-minute walk, and a further 25% of all journeys fall within a 30-minute cycle ride for a typical adult. E-bikes make these journeys more manageable, and add considerably to distances that become reasonable by bike. If even a small percentage of short car journeys were switched to walking and cycling, the traffic dilemma would go away and everyone would be happier and healthier. Could you cycle to a local shop and bring the groceries back in your basket? Dig out an old bike from your shed and get it refurbished and ready for your commute? (There is a list of open bike shops on Camcycle’s website.) Then you’re doing your part to help minimise congestion and support the economy, while leaving space for those who cannot avoid driving.

The leading problem that people cite when asked about cycling is ‘road danger’. Many people would love to try cycling for transport, but they’re justifiably afraid of dangerous roads. Furthermore, during the pandemic, we need to follow social distancing protocols. However, local authorities can quickly solve both of these issues with temporary interventions that improve safety on the roads and create more space to spread out.

Another problem is access to a bike, a trike, or an adapted cycle for people with additional needs. Loan programmes such as ‘Cycle to Work’ can help overcome this difficulty, and will pay back in spades with public health benefits. Charities like Wheels for Wellbeing are working hard to help make cycling more accessible for everyone who wants to enjoy it.

The government can take steps to make cycling a more realistic option for more people, and it has already made progress by issuing new statutory guidance and setting aside funds for rapid changes to highways. It is good to see that London, Leicester, Manchester, Glasgow and many other places have been taking a lead – we look forward to Cambridge, Peterborough, Ely, Huntingdon and others joining them soon.

Matthew Danish is a Camcycle trustee. This article was originally published on 27 May in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.

Air pollution may be aiding virus transmission

Researchers in the US are building a case that suggests air pollution has significantly worsened the Covid-19 outbreak and led to more deaths than if pollution-free skies were the norm. As well as predisposing people who have lived with polluted air for decades, scientists have also suggested that air pollution particles may be acting as vehicles for viral transmission. It is therefore imperative that pollution levels are limited as much as possible to minimise the effects of a second wave of coronavirus.

The Harvard study has highlighted the close link between emissions and public health and notes how both can stall economic growth. The reduction of pollution should be framed not just as an important benefit to public health, but as a major economic incentive.

A report published on 29 May by the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on air pollution drew on additional evidence from scientists, businesses and local authorities to propose actions including the continuation of home working, increased cycle lanes and training, more frequent public transport services to avoid crowding and the rollout of clean air zones, currently delayed by the pandemic. Geraint Davies MP, chair of the group, said: ‘Some proposals can be introduced immediately and will help to ensure that a second peak does not overwhelm the NHS. All will deliver cleaner air over subsequent years to help to ensure better public health and greater resilience against future pandemics.