15,000 Litres of (Polluted) Air


15,000 litres of air: that’s our typical daily consumption. The trouble is that alongside the necessary oxygen we are too often breathing in dangerous pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM). These pollutants also have an effect on climate change as well.

While some in this country dislike “being told by Brussels what to do”, I welcome the 2008 European Air Quality Directive (“AQD”); I can’t imagine a British government, left to its own devices, would have done anything other than perhaps produce a strategy document about clean air. The AQD is an attempt to improve the efficiency of individual laws around the member states of the EU, achieve more clarity and simplification of the regulations and legal requirements with an overall goal of improving air quality which “causes no significant adverse effects on human health or the environment and thus no corresponding danger”.

So, where’s the action? In 2013 a project was started called “European Biking Cities”, initiated by the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD), which translates literally as the “Traffic Club of Germany”; this organisation looks at and rewards environmentallyimproved vehicles and looks at the city of the future, with improved air quality and quality of life.

The initial 6 cities included Brighton & Hove here in the UK, along with Mannheim and Potsdam in Germany, Bozen / Bolzano in Italy, Strasbourg in France, and the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain. The latter has had some incredible success in just a few years.

Back in 2008, the politicians of all parties in Vitoria-Gasteiz agreed to a “Mobility Plan”, which provided for a dramatic reduction in motor vehicle traffic in the town, at a time when traffic was growing slowly but steadily, partly because the population had been growing rapidly – from 130,000 to 240,000 in 3 decades. In 2008, parked cars were taking up 64% of the streets and squares in the town, which the politicians agreed was “undemocratic”. They set a goal of reducing this to between 15 and 20%, freeing up space for cyclists and pedestrians.

They set about changing the infrastructure. One major road that had parking to the left and right of a two lanes in each direction; the parking has been removed and replaced with grass and tram tracks, and there is now just one motorised traffic lane in each direction. The cost of town centre car parking was tripled, giving a clear signal that if you want to drive into the centre, it’s going to cost you. Cyclists and pedestrians have been given more space on broad pavements. The number of bus routes was actually reduced from 20 down to 9, but their frequency increased dramatically, as well as the tram line being added.

Town planners came up with a concept of “Super Blocks”, which are rectangular areas comprising 3 horizontal and vertical streets. The outer ones are turned into one way streets and the central one becomes a traffic free zone for cycling and pedestrians. Once implemented, these super blocks have become very popular with residents, and more are planned.

The result is that 50% of the “traffic” is now pedestrian, car usage has fallen to 25%, and the proportion of cyclists in the town has grown from 3.4% to 12.3%, making Vitoria-Gasteiz the cycling capital of Spain. Their goal was to reach 15% cycling by 2020, but they are on track to get there much sooner.

Describing Vitoria-Gasteiz’ formular of success on the Cleanair-Europe site operated by the VCD, Environmental Studies Centre director Juan Carlos Escudero said “Changing your own lifestyle is not very easy. But when citizens experience the advantages of the city’s transformation, they enjoy it.

Clean Air needs “Political Commitment at the Top”

MEP Michael Cramer, chair of the European Parliament’s transport committee sees Vitoria-Gasteiz as a great example. In the English version of the city’s 2014 mobility survey he wrote: “Vitoria-Gasteiz shows that political commitment at the top, a dedicated administration and a participative approach can quickly and considerably increase the share of cyclists also in cities outside the established European cycling nations.

Dirty Weekend in Brighton?

Not any more! In part by reducing the speed limit down to 20 mph and partly by changing the layout of some town centre roads, such as New Road, cars now share space with cyclists and pedestrians. With the slower traffic speed, the proportion of pedestrians grew. The amount of pavement seating for cafés and bars grew and – just as their Basque counterparts had seen – the retail turnover has climbed.

Action point for us here in East Anglia:

• Tell local politicians, MPs and councillors alike, that they need to make this type of commitment to cleaner air and a change in lifestyle.
• Ensure that council planning officers get to see reports such as the Vitoria-Gasteiz mobility survey – http://www.cleanair-europe.org/fileadmin/user_upload/20150420_CleanAir_VitoriaGasteiz.pdf
• Liaise with Chambers of Commerce and Business Improvement Districts to show them a significant way to improve retail sales, have better quality of life for employees, and less sickness and more motivation at work – all proven results of cycling to work.


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