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Opinion: Healthy Lessons In Our Air Quality Learnt From Lockdown’s Reduced Traffic

Published on: 14 May, 2020
Updated on: 15 May, 2020

Cllr Diana Jones

by Diana Jones

Green Party borough councillor for Tillingbourne

Mingled with the awful deaths and other effects of coronavirus, there are glimmers of hope, tales of nature recovering and people enjoying cleaner air. What are the lessons here for how we recover from lockdown, and how we can help prevent future pandemics taking such a tragically high toll?

One thing we can reflect on is the impact of traffic and air pollution. Cars are gradually returning to the roads but in the first weeks of lockdown, who couldn’t help but notice how much cleaner the air was and how much quieter our villages and towns?

…who couldn’t help but notice how much cleaner the air was and how much quieter our villages and towns?

The AA said the amount of traffic during lockdown has taken us back to levels last seen in the 1970s, when the UK had almost three times fewer cars.

The Portsmouth Road at St Catherine’s taken at 5.20pm on March 26. Queues often form here during rush hours.

Research has suggested the resulting improved air quality has led to 11,000 fewer deaths in the UK and Europe, and that’s not including the potential deaths that could have been caused, but haven’t, by air pollution exacerbating coronavirus. Air pollution is thought to be a main factor in causing coronavirus deaths. With the pandemic hitting the poorest hardest, that is linked to exposure to pollution in many poorer neighbourhoods.

Most of us have been able to see and smell the benefits of cleaner air for ourselves. Even those “shielding” who cannot go out have reported less noise from roads, and seeing more wildlife in their gardens.

The increased safety has also allowed children to play in streets, with families on their daily exercise often able to use the whole road to space out and maintain social distancing. Some councils, such as in Brighton and Suffolk, temporarily closed selected roads to cars so pedestrians and cyclists could exercise safely.

Now, some say we need to return to a full-strength economy as soon as possible, and it is simply not practical to close roads or reduce the number of cars. But the rise of home-working gives the lie to that. Hundreds of thousands of people have discovered it’s perfectly possible to use modern technology to do their jobs without having to spend hours in traffic. Of course, some will still have to go to work, but reducing unnecessary travel will reduce traffic, making driving for those who have to quicker (fewer jams) and safer.

And that point about safety is pertinent. There were actually four times more deaths from traffic accidents in 1970 than in 2018, despite the lower number of cars. What changed? In short, an integrated public health campaign with funding for accompanying infrastructure changes. Speed bumps, speed limits, speed cameras, and a concerted awareness-raising effort in the media and in schools helped save lives. We can learn from that.

Now is the time to treat air pollution as the public health crisis it is, and invest in walking, cycling and electric public transport and electric vehicles, to reduce its killer effects. That way, our population will be healthier and happier, and more resilient not just to pandemics such as coronavirus, but to the looming climate emergency, too.

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Responses to Opinion: Healthy Lessons In Our Air Quality Learnt From Lockdown’s Reduced Traffic

  1. R Connor Reply

    May 15, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    I agree with Cllr Diana Jones, we must take this unexpected, but costly, silver lining from the pandemic and build on it, rather than rush back to the awful congested, grubby streets AND skies.

    Who can deny that an emptier sky has significantly helped in improving air quality?

    It has also shown there’s an essential need for more open spaces near new developments, that highrise flats aren’t the answer, that we need to stop building on farm land and show an understanding of how we can all walk and live, without falling over each other; wider pavements in town would be a start.

    What better legacy for those who have tragically lost their lives to Covid-19, than an improved, cleaner world for everyone, instead everyone mindlessly rushing back to the dirty, smelly, hamster wheel?

    Where to start though? How about bringing back Sunday closing, so the opportunity for many to slow down happens once a week? Just a thought.

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