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Caitie Gillett: How we can unite people behind air quality action

Caitie Gillett (Clean Air Programme Manager at CEN)

On hot days like these, you can be visibly reminded of our air pollution problem. In towns and cities, you can sometimes see a rank yellow colour hovering over the skyline, exposing residents to particulates. Yet, in recent months how we improve our air quality has become a hotly debated topic, with significant concerns raised about the impact of charges for older vehicles on low-income and vulnerable households.

For many, less polluting ways of getting around are also more affordable. With workers going into the office more frequently, some areas now see more cyclists than before the pandemic. And research has suggested that those with an active commute experience the most journey satisfaction — walking and cycling can be popular, fun, and convenient ways to get around.

However, active travel can sometimes come across as an environmentalist pipe dream with campaigners attempting to convince everyone that they can ditch the car and walk or cycle instead. Many suburban and rural residents are deeply concerned about being priced out of their car and being forced to take an unreliable journey by public transport or an inconveniently long trip by foot or bike to run errands.

As a result of this perception, residents can be put off supporting measures to clean up the air and cut congestion. And in the ensuing furore, the fact that we are being exposed to such high levels of air pollution is sidelined.

Now, this is not to say that there is an obvious and trade-off-free option to make tangible improvements to our air quality. Or that we can sort out our air pollution problem by just looking at transport — we need to examine how we heat our homes and power our industry too. But rather, by taking a careful look at our transport offering and by working with communities we could perhaps steer the conversation back onto air pollution.

Currently, where nitrous oxide breaches a set level, the relevant local authority has to introduce a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) unless they can suggest less intrusive measures that will have the same or a more significant impact on air quality. And across the country, several CAZs have popped up, like in Birmingham, Portsmouth, and Bristol. There are plans to introduce several more, such as in Manchester and Newcastle, to name two. Similarly, the Ultra Low Emission Zone is expanding later this summer in London.

Now, the law isn't going to change any time soon to weaken these air quality standards. And impacts should be mitigated wherever possible with measures like scrappage schemes, as Conservatives have successfully campaigned for in London. But despite all the uncertainty and frustration with current policies, the Conservatives should offer workable alternatives that will tackle pollution and help as many residents who, for whatever reason, can't use active travel or switch to an electric vehicle feel more ready to do so.

Last month I went to Birmingham to meet councillors in our network and try out e-bikes and trikes. It was not my first time trying an e-bike, but I'm always struck by how easy and safe it feels every time. With a top speed of 15.5 mph, the bike only requires little to moderate amounts of input. And for many of us who feel unsafe on the road, the power of an e-bike is reassuring and lets us focus on the road ahead. It also makes previously long journeys or daunting hills, frankly, easy.

The results from the Transport for the West Midlands scheme speak for themselves, with 48% of users reporting replacing a car journey for an e-bike, more peaceful streets and fewer short journeys. And there are plans to expand the scheme into a more integrated e-mobility network across the region. Conservatives should work with private companies to deliver projects like these up and down the country, expanding people's choice of transport, tackling congestion and improving air quality.

Of course, e-mobility is no silver bullet. Delivering cleaner air will require a multifaceted set of solutions. And here in London, there are well-documented problems with pavement parking, unlike the West Midlands, where they have a docking system. But these are not beyond our wit to solve. Moving away from a borough-by-borough system to a London-wide network with set rules and lots of set parking bays could be one potential approach.

Like I said before, it would be foolish to expect that we can all start hopping on a bike, even if it is electric, to get around all the time. And this is where EVs can make a real difference. With the lifetime costs of an EV on par with a petrol or diesel alternative and the second-hand market starting to get momentum, we need to make sure more of us can make the switch.

One of the biggest blocks has always been the lack of charge points. The ad-hoc approach, with cables dragged across the pavement isn't working. CEN MP Stephen Hammond has been campaigning recently for councils to use their bylaws to allow EV cables to use gullies like utility companies do to ensure residents without off-street parking can charge their cars without obstructing pedestrians.

And in the formerly Conservative-controlled Westminster Council, the first 'electric avenue' has been installed with Siemens. The lampposts have all been converted to contain EV chargers so residents can top up their batteries overnight - making charging even easier than going to the petrol station.

Starting a network of e-bikes and a comprehensive rollout of EV charge points will not solve our air pollution problem entirely. We will need to invest more to support active travel, make public transport more attractive, and encourage cleaner heating technologies, amongst many other things. However, as it is Clean Air Day on Thursday and the weather is looking to stay unchanged, it would be nice to set out how clean air policies do not have to be all doom and gloom.


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