The headlines have said it all since the beginning of the year – the UK’s transport is responsible for people dying too early.
More from: Healthy Transport | Fighting for Air
The country that is often so ready to tell the rest of the world how it should be keeping people safe and healthy is facing record fines for air pollution breaches.
The UK is on a final warning from the European Union and reports suggest it is facing potential heavy fines if we are unable to quickly demonstrate a plan to comply. The government now finds itself under even greater pressure to show how it will reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) with an improved air quality plan.
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And the pressure to come up with a big plan to fix the NO2 and CO2 problems is only likely to get more pronounced – an ageing, and potentially more physically and mentally fragile, growing population and continued migration into towns and cities are all key drivers for change.
And this is far bigger than just a UK problem. Globally, the number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is projected to increase from 3M in 2010 to as many as 9M in 2060, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
So why should civil engineers care?
Because transport is one of the prime causes of airborne pollution. And that, many will tell you, is now the domain of civil engineers. So if civil engineering is the go-to profession for all matters related to transport-centred development and placemaking, this should surely be the profession taking responsibility for tackling air pollution.
The challenge is huge.
Institution of Mechanical Engineers head of transport and manufacturing Philippa Oldham
Problem-solving is certainly in the engineering mindset, says Institution of Mechanical Engineers head of transport and manufacturing Philippa Oldham, who takes an active interest in this area.
“Engineers work by having challenges, and problems to fix. That’s what we strive for, to improve things,” she urges.
But she accepts it is a tough challenge to take on.
“The challenge is huge,” Oldham points out. “Part of the reason why it’s such a big area is that it’s not just about building new infrastructure. We have a huge amount of existing infrastructure, a lot that hasn’t been updated since Victorian times, and need to look at how we retrofit or replace that or work with what we’ve got.
“Not only how do we do that for now but also how do we future proof it for the next 100, 200, 300 years?”
Atkins former head of innovation Elspeth Finch, now chief executive of start-up Indigo&, says that more needs to be done to begin making the economic case for making transport healthier – connecting the improved tourism potential and fewer hospital beds taken up by those suffering the effects of air pollution.
There needs to be a move away from just patching up and adding to what we already have.
Perhaps car ownership is set to diminish, with Millennials’ reaping the rewards of a shared economy instead
“We need to look more at scenario planning, and what cities are going to look like in the future in terms, not so much of the physical infrastructure, but around how people are going to behave, how they want to work, how they’re going to live and therefore how technology and how transport is a part of that,” suggests Finch, also chair of the Enterprise Hub’s Innovators Network.
“There’s a big amount to do around consumer behaviour, which sometimes engineers don’t spend enough time on as say, advertisers and people who really care about consumer trends and what drives behaviours.”
She elaborates, saying that while transport influences over the past 10 years, such as Über’s taxi revolution, could not have been fully predicted, there is more that can be done to anticipate trends – for instance, perhaps car ownership is set to diminish, with Millennials’ reaping the rewards of a shared economy instead.
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All of which does make putting it in the “too difficult” box a tempting option and can lead to accusations of engineers, on occasion, not caring enough, or more frequently, being disorganised in their attempts to tackle the problem.
Anecdotal evidence came last month when engineers showed such little interest in signing up to attend the launch of ICE London’s Engineering Cleaner Air report that the event had to be cancelled.
It is a complex issue, and the industry should not really be waiting for the people who ultimately pay the bills to demand change.
But that demand for change is coming.
Right now a tidal wave of government inquiries, initiatives and policies on the subject is waiting to hit (see box, below).
AVs are already being trialled and their impact is not mapped out
Transport for London asset management director Dana Skelley
The House of Commons transport select committee is currently running an urban congestion inquiry; the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee has an inquiry into developing the market for electric vehicles; and four select committees are coming together for the first time to examine air quality.
And then there is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ latest shot at the government’s Air Quality plan.
Its last efforts were thrown out by the UK’s High Court for not going far enough, and the 24 April publication deadline was imminent as the May issue of New Civil Engineer went to press.
The result of that legal battle is testament to how difficult the issue of air quality is proving for the government.
Prius plugged in
Policies in recent years have displayed a naïvety and lack of understanding about the consequences of road use, and in particular the 1990s push for diesel to combat CO2 emissions growth. Now, with the increased understanding of air pollution, that maybe seems unwise in hindsight, although it is worth noting that the problems do not all stem from the uptake in diesel.
So where do we go from here?
When looking for the next radical transformation of our transport systems it is tempting to seek help from futuristic ideas. Airbus’ plan to fill the skies with “flying cars”; China’s plans for drone taxis in Dubai; Elon Musk’s visionary Hyperloop; and, of course, autonomous vehicles (AVs) to name just a few.
But are these the red herrings? As far as the more tangible AVs go, there has to be a balance between being prepared for their truly disruptive mass arrival and the timeframe within which it could happen. This is a debate that London’s streets’ boss Dana Skelley is acutely aware of. Skelley is Transport for London asset management director.
“AVs are already being trialled and their impact is not mapped out,” warned Skelley at a recent highways event. She added that there were promising upsides – especially for movement of goods – and that she could understand why some were seeing AVs as a fix-all of the future.
But then she warned of the potential downsides, not least in terms of increased congestion. She suggested any major benefits would only be generated if highways were solely occupied by AVs, something unlikely to happen for another 40 years.
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Efforts to accomodate these vehicles could understandably be kicked into the long grass if dedicated infrastructure is needed, and the current, well-publicised safety issues cannot be ironed out.
Meanwhile, there is so much more that is far more attainable – based on today’s reality and its technology. There is a great deal of understanding of the problems and the answers that is being under-realised.
There are myriad pilot schemes out there – some taking a soft or no engineering, people-centred approach, if you like. Others looking at the more established infrastructure-centred approach.
Where the latter is concerned, there is at least a growing sense that dealing with the variety of pressures on today’s transport infrastructure is no longer best dealt with by simply building more and laying more blacktop, adding more and infrastructure and systems to an already crowded network in the hope it will clear the problem like a dose of heavy antibiotics.
The M25 south west quadrant is one great example of concentrated pain that persists no matter how much capacity is wedged into it. A Department for Transport Study published last month urges people to think beyond widening, despite this section effectively suffering from a 12 hour rush hour. “Instead, attention should be given to how to reduce pressures and provide parallel capacity to relieve the motorway network,” it says.
If we go on like this we won’t have a solution by simply making [vehicles] more energy efficient
German Federal Environment Agency president Maria Krautzberger
Shiny new lanes just do not yield blissful, easy rides for commuters and leisure seekers.
And when we do opt for upgrading transport infrastructure – there is mass disruption. At the end there is little apparent gratitude, and there is a sense that the work has yielded limited benefits. The last West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade is one such notorious example. Not only was it hugely disruptive, it cost astronomical sums and offered only temporary relief – High Speed 2 resulted almost directly from the expected need for more capacity on the WCML in the early 2020s, along with a desire never to go through building extra capacity on that existing line ever again.
There is a great need to look at what infrastructure systems we have and think as broadly as possible about what can be done differently.
Here is where technology-led fixes are gaining ground. From the small but important incremental gains that can be drawn from low-cost retrofitting, to the far out and disruptive but increasingly real possibilities to be gained from embracing the shared economy model that technology affords – if one can be agile enough to adopt it.
Last year, New Civil Engineer looked at Germany’s bold approach to mitigating climate change by focusing heavily on a zero emissions transport policy. It singles transport out as a sector that can be completely transformed if the political will and collaboration from industry is there.
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“If we go on like this we won’t have a solution by simply making [vehicles] more energy efficient,” German Federal Environment Agency president Maria Krautzberger warns.
The country is playing host to a 2km long test track for trials of the so-called eHighway. The plan is to recreate rail electrification for road-based freight transport. The project uses hybrid trucks powered by overhead cables, and the technology could be relatively simple to introduce, according to those behind the technology. While it is early days, the beauty of the scheme is that it relies on known technology that is already used so much on railways and it is arguably simple and affordable to install.
Siemens, which is leading the trial, suggests that the 10% of the cost of rail electrification is in the overhead electrification. Most of the cost is in the more complex and disruptive rail infrastructure works. For eHighways, the firm argues that it is possible to simply cross out the latter cost altogether.
“We are wondering whether catenary hybrid trucks — the so-called eHighway – will be the future,” Krautzberger says, with cautious expectation. “We don’t know yet; it remains to be seen in the next couple of years.”
While the results of the two-year trial are awaited, electricity is clearly already well known as having potential for making road traffic cleaner. Electric cars produce little or no tailpipe emissions, which helps improve urban air quality.
While there is a lot of money and research, batteries are still made using rare earth materials and on the whole are not recyclable
As with eHighways, the technology again is pretty well known. And all the while, we can expect car manufacturers to come up with increasingly attractive and cheaper models to tempt the consumer to change their purchasing trends, even if buyers’ consciences are not the primary driver. And they can be virtually seamlessly integrated into the existing road network.
There are a few drawbacks. Battery technology needs a great deal of work.
“While there is a lot of money and research, batteries are still made using rare earth materials and on the whole are not recyclable,” Oldham warns. “Looking forward, how sustainable is that?” she asks.
There are wider energy concerns. If the world adopts mass electrified railways, eHighways and electric cars, we will have a new, overwhelming need for new clean power supplies, provided as efficiently and conveniently as possible. Once again, battery technology, alongside exploration of new means of generating and transporting power from sources such as liquefied natural gas will be key.
The gains are apparent. But there are concerns that perhaps the focus on electric cars diverts attention from the wider issues.
And there is one small but vital detail that must not be overlooked as transport planners look to electric cars to improve air quality – many reading the headlines in recent months may have assumed that most vehicle pollution comes from the exhaust pipe and so cleaning up engines and moving to electric vehicles will eliminate the problem. According to the OECD a lot of non-exhaust pollution from tyres and brakes winds up in our watercourses and lakes. They produce particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), which is more harmful to humans than gas pollutants like ozone and NO2.
“If you go the whole way and ban all diesel vehicles, you are still not addressing the picture as a whole,” adds Oldham. “You can’t ignore or pick which issues you want to address. At the moment not enough is being done about what solutions are there in terms of retrofitting, upgrading, and other lower carbon, and other lower emission fuel options for vehicles, or policies.”
The dawning realisation of the limitations of electric cars has stimulated interest in a more people-first purist approach from some city planners. This seeks to take back their streets from and cars and other private motorised vehicles.
Skelley’s recent lecture was really focused on getting engineers to move away from viewing the highway as a means to move vehicles quickly and instead view them as a place for cultural activities and exercise.
“In the 20th century we perhaps focused on speed of movement,” she says. “Today London must balance movement and place if it is to remain successful.”
We do have broad support from the public on this project but they also have high expectations
Oslo vice mayor for urban development Hanna Marcussen
As this issue went to press, London mayor Sadiq Khan revealed plans to introduce a new ultra low emission zone from April 2019. In this zone motorists driving the most polluting vehicles would face an additional charge, anytime of day throughout the year.
The City of London is also looking to reduce private vehicle access at the accident hotspot at Bank Junction. Plans due to come into force in May involve restricting access to the junction to buses, cyclists and pedestrians between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday. The aim is to make it safer for pedestrians and road users.
“We’ve apparently got 1.25M.m² of new office space under construction in the square mile, which means we’ll have about 500,000 people coming into the city,” points out City of London built environment director Carolyn Dwyer.
“Workers now expect public space to be usable – the line between their office space and workspace has blurred.”
Skelley definitely believes that place-making initiatives such as shared space schemes are attracting developer funding and that many of these schemes are now recognised as catalysts for local economic growth.
Car bans are not new. Paris has been forced to take initiatives including putting in place temporary car bans while making public transport free during major pollution events.
Over in Oslo, bolder plans are afoot. Yes, it is less populated than London, but it has the same concerns. “The largest contributor to climate effects in Oslo is traffic,” explains the city’s vice mayor for urban development Hanna Marcussen. “We also have a problem with local air pollution – scientists have estimated that many more people every year die too early because of air pollution in Oslo.”
Faced with these facts and a lack of space for a growing population Norway’s capital aims to create a large area that is entirely car-free.
By 2019, a 1.7km² area will be transformed. Car traffic restrictions are being introduced gradually to accommodate some transitioning and also allowing adjustments to the scheme to be made along the way. The city does not profess to have this all completely understood before just going for it. This year it will eliminate almost all street parking, and soon, private cars will be banned form the city centre.
Bicycle and public transport provision will be boosted, but so will freeing up space for other needs – anything from outside dining, culture activities, art, bicycle stands or playgrounds and beyond.
“We do have broad support from the public on this project but they also have high expectations,” adds Marcussen.
To quote the OECD there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for reducing the impacts of air pollution. Which is why it is so important for engineers to call on the broadest range of skills in their toolkit.
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These include recommending technology-led solutions and encouraging building and infrastructure owners to release data to increase understanding of transport use and give individuals greater control over how they make their journeys. Engineers can be at the helm for rethinking our public spaces and future transport systems – it is all within grasp.
“We’ve done it all before so we can do it again,” says Finch. “It’s very frustrating that we’re still in this position having talked about [changing transport needs] for years. But we will get much better results if we bring different people together form different backgrounds.”
Transport users are showing how adaptable they are, perhaps engineers will be able to do the same.
“We need to have the openness to accept that the future will be uncertain,” suggests Finch. “And as much as you would want to be able to plan and have certainty, that will be completely impossible. There has to be that awareness with anything we design that things will change.”
Air pollution: the facts
Air pollution is the release of particles and noxious gases into the atmosphere. Natural emissions of particles come from the sea, the soil and from plants. Particle pollution from human activity is largely the result of the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, petrol or diesel.
The principal concerns centre on carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone, particulates, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead.
Road transport is estimated to be responsible for about 50% of total emissions of nitrogen oxides, with nitrogen dioxide levels highest close to busy roads and in large urban areas. Gas boilers in buildings are also a source of nitrogen oxides.
Nitrogen dioxide also reacts with hydrocarbons in the presence of sunlight to create ozone, and contributes to the formation of particles.
Larger particles are generally filtered in the nose and throat and do not cause problems. Particles smaller than about 10 micrometers, referred to as PM10, and particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), can settle in the airway and deep in the lungs and cause health problems.
The health effects of particle air pollution have been widely studied. They include premature death and the worsening of heart and lung disease.
Source: London Air Quality Network, King’s College London
Engineering cleaner air
ICE London published a report into civil engineering solutions to cleaner air published in March, making the following recommendations:
- · City Hall and Transport for London (TfL) should make a long term commitment to lead on reducing emissions from construction activity
- · Pedestrianisation in London should be increased, considering public transport links
- · Embed a zero emission approach to building planning within the London Plan
- · Make air quality improvements a central objective of City Hall’s new Energy for Londoners agency
- · Promote good practice for air quality planning policy in Local Neighbourhood Plans
- · Incentivise use of commercial wharves along the river, for example through the use of a London Wharf Grant
The ICE London Air Quality Taskforce will further develop these recommendations with a final report published due in September.