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Making our towns and cities more liveable

The focus of this action guide is on local action to tackle the scourge of dangerous air pollution from road traffic as quickly as possible.

That’s because the UK’s biggest problem currently is illegal levels of the toxic gas Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) at the roadside. But the Clean Air campaign is about something bigger: it’s about an exciting, positive long-term vision to make the towns and cities where we live, work, study and visit, safer, healthier, more vibrant and more desirable places.

It’s also about cutting transport’s contribution to climate change. Motor vehicles have brought us numerous benefits and we certainly couldn’t do without them. But we also need to ensure that they don’t dominate our lives in negative ways. The Clean Air campaign is about cutting car journeys, as well as ensuring the vehicles remaining on the road are clean, but it’s not about reducing mobility.

Our vision is one where:

  • There is less traffic and thus less congestion and air pollution and climate emissions

  • our town and cities are greener and our streets safer

  • public transport is clean, efficient, fast and affordable

  • many more of us are making short journeys on foot or by bike

  • jobs and services are closer and more accessible to where we live

  • the vehicles we drive are cleaner and more efficient

This isn’t science fiction – there are numerous examples of places where decision makers with a bold vision have created vibrant towns and cities where ‘active travel’ by cycling or walking is the norm for citizens across all ages.

Bold positive action has frequently faced significant early opposition, but this almost always changes to strong support when the benefits are realised. It is not unusual for business, in time, to welcome measures to restrict traffic, as they recognise that healthier, more pleasant places are good for the economy, and that less traffic improves conditions for essential road users.

Citizens also benefit from less traffic with the triple win of reduced congestion and pollution, as well as the wellbeing benefits of more active lifestyles.

Consider some stark statistics:

  • 40% of car trips are less than 3 miles; a relatively easy cycling distance. [source]

  • A generation ago, 70% of us walked to school – now it’s less than half. [source]

  • Only 4% of UK respondents cycle on a daily basis. In contrast it’s 28% in Finland, 30% in Denmark and 43% in the Netherlands. [source]

  • Over two–thirds of people think more cycling would make their city a better place to live and work in, yet less than one–third think cycling safety in their city is good. [source]

  • The UK has the most congested roads in Europe, with more than twice the number of congestion ‘hotspots’ that Germany has. [source]

  • Obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years and, on current trends, more than half the population could be obese by 2050. [source]

  • Whilst total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK have fallen by 38% since 1990, the contribution from transport has barely changed. More than 90% of domestic transport emissions are from road transport. [source]

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many towns and cities across the world have demonstrated a better way by managing traffic for the wellbeing of citizens. As a result their economies have benefitted and they are considered desirable places to live and work.

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Success stories

The German city of Frieburg shows how it can be done. A comprehensive network of cycle routes, expansion of the tram system, extensive pedestrianisation and traffic restraint measures have reduced car traffic whilst hugely increasing use of ‘green’ transport modes. Now cars are used for just 21% of all journeys – compared to some UK examples of Swindon (75%) Milton Keynes (63%) and Leeds (56%). More on Freiburg.

Other cities have taken decisive action for the benefit of their citizens and the environment. Oslo in Norway plans to have a car–free city centre by 2019 and is taking steps to boost cycling by replacing car-parking space with cycle lanes. More about Oslo’s story.

Copenhagen, Denmark, achieved its impressive transformation to 52% of commuter journeys by bicycle with a systematic plan and decisive policies over several years. Each year a small percentage of car parking spaces were removed from the city centre. At the same time streets were progressively pedestrianised and a network of cycle lanes was put in place. More on Copenhagen’s cycling success.

Stockholm in Sweden has introduced a congestion charge that has reduced  ambient air pollution, cut child asthma attacks, reduced congestion and  has majority public support !

These positive examples of more liveable towns and cities weren’t achieved by chance. They happened because decision makers had a bold, positive vision and had the political courage to overcome the resulting challenges to achieve it.

If the domination of the motor vehicle can be successfully challenged in these places, then together we can challenge it here in the UK – there have been examples of bold action in the UK, including the introduction of the London Congestion Charge, but more needs to be done now.