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Transport planners not taking environmental impacts of transport 'sufficiently into account' - study

Words: Laura Edgar

Transport planning in the UK is not sufficiently taking into account the environmental impacts of transport choices, according to recent research.

Presented at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference, the research also states that road transport is the principal cause of air pollution in over 95 per cent of legally designated Air Quality Management Areas in the UK.

Currently, estimates suggest that more than 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution in this country, the research says. Despite considerable policy and practice activities at various levels of government since the Environment Act 1995 committed the UK to improve air quality to internationally accepted standards, measurements in the real environment show little improvement.

Authors Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst, from the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, reviewed the findings of a number of projects they had worked on to identify why air pollution from road transport in the UK had not reduced.

The study considered a number of factors, including in-depth analysis of local authority approaches to managing air quality and the results of Department of Transport (DfT) commissioned studies into people’s attitudes and transport choices.

“Air pollution is perhaps the grossest manifestation of a general failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account. Currently air pollution is a shared priority between Department for Environment, Food and Rural (Defra) and DfT, but shared priority does not mean equal priority,” said Pankhurst.

“Environmental managers only identify and monitor the problems. Insufficient relevant priority has been given within the sector responsible for most relevant emissions – transport policy and planning – which has instead prioritised safety and economic growth.”

The authors say that UK transport planners are not taking the environmental impacts of transport “sufficiently into account”.

Although pollution contributes between 15 and 30 times the annual number of deaths associated with road traffic collisions, collisions “remain the primary concern” of transport planners.

“Politicians at local and national levels must treat poor air quality as a public health priority, placing clear emphasis on the severity of the problem and the limitations of technological fixes"

The authors said the study identified a “strategic policy tone” that promtes the car as central to national transport policy while financial support for alternative modes of transport and to local authorities seeking to introduce potentially effective air improvement measures is limited.

Relying too much on policy measures to influence individual travel behaviour is also identified in the report as affecting attempts to reduce pollution.

In practice, the research claims, transport choices are a result of individuals interacting with a wide range of people – employers, businesses, schools, etc – and are “strongly conditioned by factors such as the built environment and the provisions of transport alternatives”.

Chatterton said: “There needs to be a strong political and societal commitment to protecting public health, particularly the health of children, whose life chances can be seriously compromised by exposure to air pollution.”

He said this will require changes across society in the expectations of how people, and those they connect with, get around.

“The ‘nudge’ approach to behaviour change favoured by David Cameron’s governments will not be adequate to meet this challenge. Given recent events, we would like to see the government making a clear, strong effort to ‘take back control’ of the air pollution problem.”

The study recommends that key government departments look at the relationship between environmental management and transport management at the national and local levels. Transport agencies and local authorities should be required to give higher priority to air quality management.

“A local authority grant funding line is needed to tackle air quality problems through local transport policy measures, this would help ensure that poor air quality receives sufficient priority,” said Parkhurst.

Hannah Budnitz, chair, RTPI-TPS Transport Planning Network, said: “We support this renewed call for air pollution and public health to be given much greater priority in government transport policy and funding. A combination of carrots (improved public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure) and sticks (parking restrictions, charging schemes, filtered permeability) at the local level is needed to reduce car use.” 

However, Budnitz said, national policy and funding is focused on major transport projects, including innovation in vehicle technology, at the expense of investment on local transport.

“It is therefore unsurprising that cheaper schemes like voluntary travel behaviour change programmes are being over-used by local councils, but they are not necessarily effective.”

She said it must be ensured that accessibility remains a key criterion for new development, and that the drive for more housing does not come at the expense of greater car use.

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