Transport planning neglects air pollution, study claims

Road accidents remain a priority in UK transport planning despite a higher death toll from illnesses linked to air pollution, a study which will be presented at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) has found.

Bristol traffic UK pollution

There has been little improvement in UK air pollution caused by road transport in the last twenty years, the RGS has claimed

There has been little improvement in UK air pollution caused by road transport in the last twenty years, the study claims, pointing to a lack of “joined-up” action between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT).

The researchers have called for air quality to be treated as a “public health priority.”

According to the study published today (30 August), road transport causes over 95% of air pollution in designated “Air Quality Management Areas” in the UK, and current estimates suggest that over 50,000 deaths a year can be linked to air pollution.

The research found that transport planners are “not taking the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account.”

Despite pollution contributing “between 15 and 30 times the annual number of deaths” caused by road traffic accidents between 2000-15, the study claims that “road traffic collisions remain the primary concern of transport planners,” and air pollution has “at best” been designated a “shared priority” between Defra and DfT.

‘General failure’

Professor Graham Pankhurst, who conducted the research with Dr Tim Chatterton, said: “Air pollution is perhaps the grossest manifestation of a general failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account.

“Currently air pollution is a shared priority between Defra and DfT, but shared priority does not mean equal priority.

“Environmental managers only identify and monitor the problems. Insufficient relevant priority has been given within the sector responsible for most relevant emissions — transport policy and planning — which has instead prioritised safety and economic growth.”


Aside from a lack of joined-up government, the study also points to a problematic policy ‘tone’ that “continues to provide for the private car as central to national transport policy,” as well as a lack of regulatory and financial support for alternative modes of transport and for local authorities looking to introduce air improvement measures.

The report also identifies problems such as the over-reliance on policy measures to influence individual travel behaviour, and a lack of awareness of the problem among the wider population, which may not be familiar with for example the morbidity and mortality costs.

And, commenting on the misplaced belief that technological improvements would make a big difference, the study claims there has been a “failure to recognise that, given the existing vehicle fleet is replaced only slowly, reduced vehicle use is the only sure way to bring about changes in measured concentrations.”


A key recommendation offered by the review is for Defra and DfT to “look again at the relationship between environmental management and transport management at both the national and local levels.”

And in particular, transport agencies such as Highways England, and local authorities should be required to give higher priority to air quality management, including resource investment.

Dr Chatterton said: “Politicians at local and national levels must treat poor air quality as a public health priority, placing clear emphasis on the severity of the problem and the limitations of technological fixes. Existing approaches that focus on individual, voluntary, behaviour change and technological innovations are not sufficient to tackle poor air quality.”

He added: “The ‘nudge’ approach to behaviour change favoured by David Cameron’s governments will not be adequate to meet this challenge. Given recent events, we would like to see the government making a clear, strong effort to ‘take back control’ of the air pollution problem.”


In April this year, Defra and DfT set up a Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) to focus on delivering the UK’s national air quality plans to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (see story).

Commenting on the report, a government spokesperson said: “The government is firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions. That’s why we have committed more than £2billion to greener transport schemes since 2011 and set out a national plan to tackle pollution in our towns and cities.

“We have some of the safest roads in the world and are committed to making sure that record continues.”


The report, titled ‘The Air Pollution-Transport Divide: Why After Two Decades of Statutory Obligations is Road Transport Derived Air Pollution Not Declining?’ will be presented on Wednesday (31 August) at the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference.

Related links

RGS Annual International Conference 2016 


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