Sustrans says the government must take immediate action to restrict the use of cars in Britain’s cities to stop people dying prematurely due to being “poisoned” by the exhaust fumes of their neighbours’ cars.
The sustainable transport charity issued its call after a government report breaking results down by area, found that nearly 30,000 people a year die in the UK as a result of air pollution, reducing average life expectancy by six months.
The reports authors say the focus of transport policies must shift from motor vehicles to cycling and walking to cut emissions and improve the nation’s health.
Called Estimating Local Mortality Burdens associated with Particulate Air Pollution, it was published by Public Health England (PHE), and breaks down the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution by local authority area.
According to the report, in some London boroughs such as Barnet and Bromley, more than 8 per cent of deaths – one in 12 – result from air pollution, falling to around 2.5 per cent in rural areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, PHE’s head of air pollution and climate change, said: “Much outdoor air pollution comes from burning fuels to generate heat and electricity, and from vehicles.
“Measures that significantly reduce particulate air pollution or cut exposure would be regarded as important public health initiatives.”
His colleague, Dr Paul Cosford, who is PHE’s director of health protection and medical director, said a change in emphasis of transport policy to encourage walking and cycling rather than driving would cut total vehicle emissions and particulate air pollution.
“If this could be achieved in towns and cities, then we could expect local improvements in air quality,” he said. “There would also be health benefits from increased physical activity through walking and cycling.
“Local authorities could also consider other measures to improve air quality, such as implementing low emission strategies as well as the appropriate design of green spaces.”
The estimates in the report address long-term exposure to air pollution, rather than short-term episodes such as the smog that descended on London and other parts of the country last week.
However, PHE adds: “Short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a range of adverse health effects including exacerbation of asthma, effects on lung function, increases in hospital admissions and mortality.”
Philip Insall, health director at sustainable transport charity Sustrans, said: "Past months have brought shocking news on air quality in the UK, with the government facing action in the European court over its failure to address pollution.
"This new report shows the impact in terms of lives lost, broken down to local authority area. It would be unfair to pick out any one council, because all are equally shamed by these figures, but a typical city saw 200 deaths and more than 2,000 life years lost in 2010, because we are just not tackling air pollution.
"If the water in our taps were causing this many deaths, the government response would be immediate. So why are we not - as some European cities already do - acting to restrict motor vehicle use in the most polluted areas?
“It cannot be acceptable that in the 21st century, we are still being poisoned by the toxic gases coming out of our neighbours' exhaust pipes."
How motorists should be discouraged from driving in a bid to cut emissions is the subject of some debate.
Last month, the French capital, Paris, banned some vehicles on specific days after air pollution reached dangerous levels.
On some days, only vehicles with a registration number ending with an odd number were allowed to circulate, on other days, ones that had an even number.
But experience of cities elsewhere has cast doubt over the effectiveness of what are termed “licence plate bans,” since some motorists get round them by buying an older, cheaper –and often, more polluting – vehicle for the days when their usual car is banned.
Examples of cities that have introduced such bans include Athens and Beijing, as well as Mexico City, which introduced a one-day-a-week ban in 1989, reports the Guardian.
Initially, carbon monoxide levels fell by 11 per cent, but as people began acquiring second cars, the long-term impact has been that they have risen by 13 per cent.
Some believe that Low Emission Zones (LEZs), the first of which was launched in Stockholm, Sweden in 1996, with London phasing its version in between 2008 and 2012, are a better option.
Under such schemes, vehicles that do not meet European emission standards on particulate matter are charged for entering the zone, with enforcement in the British capital carried out by Automatic Number Plate Reading (ANPR) cameras.
Lucy Sadler, who runs the website Low Emission Zones in Europe, told the newspaper: "Certainly, in terms of comparison between low emission zones and odd-and-even number plate schemes, it's a no-brainer.
"There is lots of good evidence saying low emission zones have a good impact on air quality and health. That's robust and well researched."
But Ben Barratt of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London, believes the best way to cut emissions lies in using a combination of LEZs and central congestion charging zones, similar to the one in place in London since 2003.
He told the Guardian: "You have to take the vehicles off the road, rather than just try and make them cleaner.
“So something like congestion charging, where you've got a marked decrease in the number of vehicles on the road, is preferable to something where you've got the same number of vehicles, [even if] those are cleaner."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.