In a few short weeks, the day to day lives of everyone in the UK has changed and people’s daily routines have been turned upside down. For millions of people one of the biggest changes has been that they haven’t driven anywhere - not to work, not to do the school run and not to go shopping - for weeks. So it’s maybe unsurprising, given the huge drop in car trips, that one of the positive consequences of the current global health crisis is the improvement in air quality, almost worldwide.
In recent weeks, the UK has seen unprecedented reductions in air pollution with drops in tiny particle pollution (PM2.5) of a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff; falls of about a quarter in Manchester, York and Belfast; and smaller declines in Glasgow and Newcastle. Motor traffic accounts for about 80 per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the UK and the data also shows that since lockdown, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution has declined by a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff. And it’s not just the largest cities that have benefited, Portsmouth has seen the highest drop in NO2 levels in England during lockdown and Hafodyrynys in Wales the largest in the UK. These figures highlight just how much of a contribution that road transport makes to poor air quality in towns and cities.
Of course once the crisis has passed many aspects of daily life will return to normal, and rightly so, but there is a unique opportunity to reexamine the nation’s travel needs and in particular the ‘avoidable car journey’. More than a third of car trips in the UK are under two miles, and more than 60 per cent of them are less than five miles, so the opportunity is there, particularly in urban areas, for more sustainable choices to be taken for these types of trips.
One of the biggest changes for many has been home working. Having had to hurriedly put in place the technology and support to allow people to work remotely, some employers and employees may decide to make this temporary arrangement permanent, even after offices and places of businesses are allowed to reopen, which could, of course, reduce the number making a daily commute and reduce the need to travel.
There are always lessons to be learned from every crisis, and sometimes those lessons are not directly related to the crisis itself. Reducing our reliance on the car as a primary mode of transport, even temporarily, has had an undeniably positive effect on the air we breathe. The question following the coronavirus pandemic will be, can this change in behaviour be maintained and will it have a lasting impact for our communities?
In order to achieve the scale of the transformation necessary to meet the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, transport has to change. Public transport, walking and cycling, and more shared transport will have to become the primary choice for the majority of trips. There will be lessons we can learn from the current crisis that will ensure that change in choices can be made by people across the country, and made safely.