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Learning lessons from pandemic could see long term reduction in urban air pollution

Published: 2 June 2021

Prioritising access to active travel and public transport are important to reducing car journeys and exposure to air pollution for everyone concludes a paper recently published by a team from the Health Protection Division at Public Health Wales, in collaboration with colleagues from Public Health England.

Dr Sarah J Jones, Consultant in Environmental Public Health for the Health Protection Division at Public Health Wales, said:  

“How we travel affects the extent to which we are exposed to air pollution and this study aimed to look at how exposure varied for people walking, cycling, driving or using public transport. In some cases, people in cars were exposed to more pollutants, in others, it was people who were cycling who were more exposed. Lots of factors affect this, for example, where cycle lanes and footpaths are and how fresh air is drawn in to cars. But, we also found that people who walk, cycle and use public transport are healthier than those who drive.  

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many changes in the way we travel and it is important that we continue to support as many people as possible to use active transport and public transport, particularly for short, around town type journeys, so that we can improve our air quality for everyone.” 

Other key findings included:  

  • Higher concentrations of air pollutants were often experienced in car commuters compared to cycling and walking 
  • Pedestrians and cyclists were generally exposed to lower concentrations of air pollution when using routes separated from motorised traffic;  
  • Pollution concentrations for all transport modes depend upon the proximity to high volumes of motor traffic, with pollutant concentrations being highest at busy traffic junctions  
  • Air pollution was greater during morning rush hours than afternoon rush hours and that non-rush hour concentrations were the lowest 
  • Considering wider, long-term public health and environmental benefits, every effort should be made to prioritise active travel and public transport and enable more people to use these modes. 

The paper ‘Assessing the exposure to air pollution during transport in urban areas – Evidence review’ has been published by the Journal of Transport and Health. It reviewed studies that measured pollutant concentrations in urban transport microenvironments and were published between January 2016 and July 2020.  

Evidence from this review should be used to help inform consistent public health messaging as well as development of transport and planning policies in urban areas.   

For more information:- 

Journal of Transport and Health:  Assessing the exposure to air pollution during transport in urban areas – Evidence review