The air is 'too toxic to breathe' in a third of tested areas in Europe - thanks to cheap cars and expensive trains

But given that 30% of car journeys are less than 3km - should more people get on bikes?

by Sarah Barth   December 1, 2012  

Cyclist passing parked cars in Milan (copyright Simon MacMichael)

The air is too toxic to breathe in a third of tested areas, a new report from the European Environment Agency shows.

Dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matters were found - and according to the EEA: "These pollutants can affect the cardiovascular system, lungs, liver, spleen and blood."

The report, which you can read in full here, says that it's down to the way the majority of people choose to get around. Private car use has stayed more or less steady despite the economic downturn, despite anecdotal evidence of more people taking to two wheels to save money.

Part of this is the soaring cost of rail travel - while buying a car has actually become far more affordable in real terms since the mid-1990s.

And while electric cars, and more fuel-efficient models have been proven to be genuine alternatives for drivers, they just haven't become widely used yet.

"The application of technology has been the primary means of reducing the environmental impacts of transport in the last two decades," Alfredo Sánchez Vicente, a transport expert at EEA, told the Public Service Europe website.

"But it is clear that measures for reducing the impact of transport emissions and noise can be either technical or non-technical.

"Action to reduce emissions - greenhouse gases, air pollutants and noise - from vehicles through shifting to alternative modes, the 'shift' principle, and to cleaner fuels and improved vehicle technology, the 'improve' principle, should be complemented by better managing transport demand - the 'avoid' principle.

"Growing transport demand negates many of the benefits of technology development."

The real key to getting Europeans healthier - both in terms of fitness and air quality - is to get them out of motor vehicles, he said.

"Non-motorised transport can and should play a major role in improving the quality of life of Europeans.

"The challenge is to remove barriers to commuting by bicycle, including cultural and infrastructural barriers, but also in terms of safety.

"We know that its use is exponential: the more bikes on the road, the more pleasant and less dangerous it is to commute by bike, and more infrastructure becomes available.

"All administration levels need to help trigger this positive cycle." Indeed, more bicycles in the transport mix could be a godsend.

"But it is going to take time and investment. People will not cycle if they do not feel safe and to feel safe they need adequate infrastructure. The real reason the Dutch cycle is because the the government spends on average €25 per head on cycling policies."

6 user comments

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now match that with the plaudits boris is getting for spending 2% of the London transport budget on bikes....

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posted by mrmo [1032 posts]
1st December 2012 - 21:57

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Cheap cars and expensive trains - rubbish! If like me you pay only for the car use you need trains are a bargain - even for the standard walk-up fares.

A trip Glasgow-Edinburgh, by rail with bike (choice of 11-12 trains per hour EACH WAY) and faster - 40 minutes central Glasgow to Haymarket - for £12 (day return any train) £10 (limited to Cross Country) £22 (anytime anytrain) of get the coach (70 min) for £6 return.

By car 100 miles at 35p/mile = £35 plus say £6 for parking, and journey time variable between 1 hour and 2 hours including congestion and hunt for parking space.

Big issue of air quality though is the lines of buses (40-80 seats each) with 5-20 passengers on solidly filling places like Hope Street.

But worse, those very dangerous 32T tipper and skip trucks, shifting '000's of tons per day, running up millions of ton miles, between quarries and sites and waste tips from major construction projects. The emissions footprint is vast, for example just one recent London site moved c.300,000T by road in 2 months - 5000T per day, 150 50-mile round trips by around 50 32T trucks, each one with a pollution penalty, and a massive damage footprint for the City's roads, and an equally major increase in the risk presented to cyclists by more by trucks on the road.

So let's hope for a bit more in depth review instead of springing to the conclusion that it is increased car use. Empty car parks with special offers to attract custom, roads deserted outside very brief peak hour mayhem, tells me that car use is going down, and the reports says freight transport is responsible for major increases, with commentary and NOx and PM10 pointing strongly towards diesel vehicles, especially the freight fleet which has few hybrid or electric vehicles. The bus industry is embracing these, not least because of significant reductions in diesel consumption even when the penalty of Euro 5 and 6 emissions standards are imposed on the engine themselves (and a lower % of trucks are at the Euro 5 stage of emissions control).

So let's read the report before the sensational claims.

47 years of breaking bikes and still they offer me a 10 year frame warranty!

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posted by A V Lowe [471 posts]
1st December 2012 - 22:47

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Fat people drive to supermarkets, load their cars up with high calorie foods, drive home, then sit in front of their plasma screen using the remote to change channels. Then they go online to buy diet books and wonder what they're doing wrong. You have to really marvel at the world that has been created for them.

posted by londonplayer [671 posts]
2nd December 2012 - 14:39

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"Cheap cars and expensive trains - rubbish! If like me you pay only for the car use you need trains are a bargain - even for the standard walk-up fares."

Are you in a car share scheme like streetcar or zipcar? Unfortunately most people are not. It would be great if they were but for most people the calculation is 10, maybe 15p per mile to use the car since they own it already, and that may be spread over three or four people, ie £15 for 3 or 4 people by car versus £18 - £24 for coach, more for train.

Also your calculation of time and cost doesn't account for getting from home to the station, say £2 each or £20 for a taxi plus some hassle, and the same the other end to get to Nan's house.

I think car share schemes are brilliant and should be actively promoted by local authorities to break the link between car ownership and car use. Then people would be free to choose between car and other forms of transport.

posted by horizontal dropout [147 posts]
2nd December 2012 - 19:33

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People will not make an economic choice to take public transport when so much of the cost of running a car (initial purchase, depreciation, VED and insurance) is up front rather than in use. This creates a disincentive for using public transport on a case-by-case basis where the cost is typically 'all-in'. One solution would be to move to higher fuel duties or variable road pricing, but they have issues of their own (cost and non-progressive taxation are two I can think of off the top of my head).

posted by jackh [105 posts]
3rd December 2012 - 16:40

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Eletric cars and more fuel-efficient models have proven to work in being environmentally-friendly. However, the maintenance of such cars is considered as a burden to some car owners who are not willing to make the switch due to the long charging need of the battery. Furthermore, a certain percentage of car owners are speed demons who are just not willing to trade swiftness over fuel. However, many manufacturers such as BMW has introduced many fuel-efficient vehicles without sacrificing the speed such as the i3 or i8 to name a few. Hopefully the electric car industry will receive better response in the near future.

Peter Mould - http://www.pmwltd.co.uk

posted by Peter_Mould [17 posts]
26th March 2013 - 4:40

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