Getting to grips with air pollution

“More than 200 people die in the Capital each year as killer bug rampages through homes”.

Imagine the reaction to that headline. Experts would be summoned. Budgets would be diverted. Task forces would be set up. The First Minister, we would be solemnly told, is receiving hourly updates.

And it would all be quite justified.

But what about the reaction to 205 deaths a year in Edinburgh from air pollution? A fuss is caused, for sure, but a few days later it is back to business as usual.

Why the contrast? Well, partly it is because air pollution is an invisible killer and the link between cause and effect is complicated and prolonged. People don’t typically die moments after standing on a traffic-choked street.

But it is not just that. Air quality is so poor because of traffic volumes. And traffic patterns and volumes are coded into the DNA of our modern city.

Forget the millions of productive hours wasted sitting in queues; the dumping of commuter cars in hitherto quiet residential streets; the families’ lives blighted by road traffic accidents – the convenience and comfort of one’s vehicle is, it seems, all that matters.

Let’s take the benefits of car-use as a given. Our future lies with how cars fit within an overall city transport strategy, rather than simply being the default.

Because there are, of course, choices. We have a bus system that is highly-regarded – and which is replacing the fleet with low-emission vehicles – and the tram will complement that with zero on-street emissions; although we need to look at pricing and route options. Cycling is on the up, if still far behind other northern European cities, and almost 1 in 5 people choose to walk to make their daily journey.

But there are still too many vehicles clogging the roads. Car-sharing and pooling needs to be centre-stage, recognising the freedom that a car brings, but exercising it much more efficiently.

Low emission zones – which penalise higher polluting vehicles entering pressured areas – seemed on the cusp of introduction only 2 or 3 years ago. They need brought back in from the cold.

And, yes, technology has a role to play – zero emission vehicles are feasible but only if the city is content to address air pollution and leave untouched problems of road safety, congestion and land-loss.

So, what Edinburgh really needs is bolder ambitions: a target to reduce traffic volumes by around 20% in the first instance; using the tools already at our disposal but with a real impetus and a sense of scale.

Air quality will improve. But so will the quality and feel of our neighbourhoods as the much-ignored pedestrian pound supports local businesses. Confidence in cycling will grow with health benefits for the individuals as well as the city. Road safety traps and rat-runs will decline.

I don’t believe it is necessary for the First Minister to receive hourly updates. But on traffic reduction we need a better sense of where the city is headed.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 14 April 2014