Saving lives, reducing vehicles in cities

23 Jun
Cristina Ribas

Air pollution is a major public health concern, perhaps one of the most serious problems facing large developed cities. The evidence of the negative effects on health are growing day by day, with contributions from internationally renowned scientific groups such as the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) which estimates that there are 3,500 premature deaths each year in the Barcelona area resulting from air pollution. Pollution not only affects patients suffering from respiratory diseases, but is also a cause of cancer and cardiovascular conditions when nitrogen oxides and smaller particles are capable of passing through the bronchi and enter the bloodstream. Recently, CREAL also discovered cognitive development impairment in children in schools in close proximity to highly contaminated streets.

Many European cities have done their homework focusing on one of the major causes of pollution: vehicle traffic, above all diesel engines which are the primary agent responsible for nitrogen oxide emissions reaching unacceptable levels, as revealed by the Volkswagen scandal. One of the most effective initiatives in this area is the delimitation of Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) in city centres, which restricts the access of the most pollutant vehicles to entering these areas in conjunction with improvements in public transport and promotion of sustainable mobility. These policies enjoy greater scientific consensus and have been implemented by more than 200 cities in 12 European countries, including Berlin and London.

None of the cities which have implemented measures restricting traffic wish to backtrack on these improvements, much in the same way as what we have experienced with the ban on smoking in public places. In fact, the story has a lot in common with the smoking ban if we consider for example that in Barcelona, only 15% of inner-city displacements use private vehicles. This means that most of the city’s inhabitants are passive smokers subject to emissions produced by others. Experts in mobility explain that traffic tends to adapt its behaviour. The greater the limitations in circulation, the less traffic there is and, inversely, when circulation is made easier and more channels are made available, the heavier traffic becomes to the point of collapsing entirely. Another advantage of reducing cars in cities, apart from the positive effects on health, is the greater occupation of public space by pedestrians and cyclists with the added benefit of an improvement in quality of life.

For all these reasons, courageous decisions are needed from governments, as they were when it came to the application of the smoking ban legislation. In order to promote these initiatives and help raising awareness about the problem of pollution, last year the Platform for Air Quality in Catalonia was set up, which includes neighbourhood associations, environmentalists, public transport activists and advocates for the use of bicycles, as well as citizen groups and professionals from the areas of health, the environment and mobility. One of these groups is the Catalan Association for Science Communication, which understands that scientific journalism should serve the community if it is to be responsible and play a leading role in a society where everyone is potentially a means of communication.

It is also vital for the authorities to understand that they must collaborate with the public and experts in disseminating and using information. Applications to measure contamination levels should not be limited only to warning us when European legal standards have been exceeded, but must in addition take into account the limits recommended by the WHO, the only secure parameters in terms of safeguarding health. This, together with the different data and models utilised, result in the fact that the services and applications which provide information on pollution in the Catalan region do not agree 100% in their forecasts:, Caliope, Plumbe, Real Time Air Quality Index… The most serious feature is that despite all these resources, people do not quite understand when, where and why it is dangerous to walk, play sports or simply breathe.

Thus, the platform calls for free and open access to all the data: pollution measurements and positioning, traffic, weather, models… so that one can create one’s own applications, extract the know-how and create services that the public feel are useful. With the data available, journalists can also provide reports of public interest such as this interactive map of the UK drawn up by The Guardian that shows the boroughs with the most deaths from particulate air pollution.


Post written by Cristina Ribas (@cristinaribas), Catalan Association for Science Communication and Platform for Air Quality.