Plans for hard shoulder running on congested sections of motorway have shone a light on dangerously poor air quality that those living near busy roads routinely face. Rather than planning for a massive increase in cars, the Government needs to clean up its act and protect communities from dirty air.
Hot on the heels of the Highways Agency’s plan for a reduced speed limit on a 4.8km section of the M1 has come the proposal for a similar move on a much longer section of the M3. The announcements are the result of the Highways Agency’s so-called smart motorway programme, where the hard shoulder is pressed into service as an extra lane.
Breathing dirty air prematurely kills around 30,000 Britons a year. A major European study published last year found exposure to air pollution significantly reduced birth weights. Just last week, the European Commission announced it has begun legal proceedings against the UK for failing to meet legal standards on air quality.
Emissions from cars and lorries are a large part of this problem. A direct link between vehicle emissions and public health has also been demonstrated: the World Health Organisation recently classified such fumes as a definite cause of lung and bladder cancer.
Proponents of road building argue that dangerously dirty air is a medium term problem which will eventually be mitigated by cleaner engines and electric cars. But this ignores the need for urgent action now to bring down emissions and save lives. Neither does progress over recent years give much scope for optimism. Under European Union rules, the government should have reduced air pollution to safe levels in the UK by 2010. However, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter from diesel engines have shown little improvement in the last decade and remain a significant problem in urban areas.
Moreover, our government seems hell bent on creating more traffic. Senior politicians, from the prime minister and chancellor down are insisting that more road building is needed to help the economy and they are planning for a 40% increase in traffic over the next 25 years.
The government needs to act to ensure communities can breathe cleaner air and not just hope that engine technology will solve the problem. We urgently need to establish more low emissions zones in our larger large towns and cities, limiting which vehicles are allowed where. There are over 70 such zones in Germany compared with just three in Britain. To support this, we also need to invest in decent low-emission public transport so people can leave the car at home. Most importantly, the Government needs to re-think its plan to put tens of millions of new cars on the road.
James MacColl is head of campaigns at Campaign for Better Transport