Walking and cycling investments would prevent thousands of deaths, report says

More than 12,000 premature deaths linked to air pollution and almost £10bn could be saved over the next decade if the UK government managed to reach targets for walking and cycling, according to a new report.

The study from the transport charity Sustrans, in partnership with environmental consultancy Eunomia, has released findings and called for more support to increase walking and cycling across the UK as the country aims to tackle air pollution. With many towns and cities continuing to fail in adhering to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. The latest report today aims to encourage local authorities to invest in more sustainable transport with benefits of reduced motor emissions revealed.

The findings show that if England and Scotland were to adopt strategies and meet targets on increasing walking or cycling then deaths related to air pollution would reduce by more than 12,000 in the next 10 years and save £9.31bn. 

It found that if the targets to double journeys by bike and increase walking by 300 stages per person in the England’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy were met, this would prevent more than 8,300 premature deaths from air pollution and would result in £5.67bn in benefits to the public purse over ten years – through the avoided costs associated with poor air quality, including NHS treatment for respiratory diseases. While, if the vision of 10% of everyday journeys by bike set out in Scotland’s Cycling Action Plan was realised, nearly 4,000 premature deaths would be avoided and £3.64bn of savings would accrue over a decade.

Xavier Brice, chief executive for Sustrans, said: “At a time when road transport is responsible for the majority of air quality limit breaches in the UK, it has never been more important to reduce the number of motorised vehicles on our roads. The new findings reiterate that walking and cycling has a huge role to play in tackling the air quality crisis that causes tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

"If we are to make a major modal shift, we need to provide a network of direct protected cycle routes on roads in addition to quieter routes across the UK. We’re urging governments at all levels to include funding for walking and cycling infrastructure in their Clean Air Plans and the UK Government to prioritise investment in active travel as part of wider urgent action to make air safe again.”

Last month, a report from the Royal College of Physicians, highlighted how millions of people in the UK are inhaling air considered to be too dangerous to breathe by the WHO with 44 towns and cities failing the organisation’s test for fine sooty particles smaller than 2.5 microns, which are linked to heart disease and premature death. In England, 29 local authorities that are breaking legal air quality limits are to produce Clean Air Plans by November 2018, while devolved nations are trialling a number of different plans to improve air quality.

Ann Ballinger, an air quality expert at Eunomia, said: “This is the first time that Sustrans’s data has been used alongside public health data to understand what impacts walking and cycling schemes have on an individual’s exposure to air pollution. Our analysis suggests investment in cycling and walking has considerable potential to improve local air pollution. We believe this innovative model could be of considerable value in supporting local authorities and government as these bodies consider options to tackle the air pollution emergency at a local level.”

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