How your commute is bad for your health, and how we can sort it out

Most of us know full well what a grim commute in London feels like. But not many of us know that commuting may be so bad for our health that it’s shortening our lives. This is because of the lethal and illegal levels of air pollution that blight London’s air each day. In total, air pollution is shortening Londoners’ lives by over 140,000 years every year, or the equivalent of around 9,400 deaths, a figure that costs the economy more than £3.5 billion.

This is a public health problem of the highest order. The World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) tell us that over 90 per cent of all people across the world are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution and that it is now the cause of around one in 9 deaths – four times more than HIV/AIDS and six times more than malaria. In the UK, this figure stands at around 40,000 deaths per year.

These are big numbers. To get an idea of how air pollution is affecting us personally, I gave one of my colleagues at IPPR a CleanSpace air monitor to take with her when she commuted to work (I take the tube). The monitor recorded how much air pollution she was exposed to as she cycled from her flat in west London, down Kensington High Street, past Hyde Park, and up the Mall to the IPPR offices near Embankment.

What we found was shocking. Each day, as she cycled to and from the office, she was being exposed to ‘high’ levels of air pollution. That is, she was cycling through air of such low quality that it was damaging her health, which could lead to serious problems if she keeps breathing it in. Sometimes over 90 per cent of her journey would be through high levels of air pollution. That’s a lot of bad air to be breathing in day in, day out.

As a result, she would often come into work with a streaming nose, sore eyes, and a cough, and this kind of high, long term exposure will take months off her life expectancy. What’s more, her commute takes her via parks and often onto cycle superhighways; those who are cycle along Marylebone Road and Oxford Street, for example, are being exposed to far greater levels. Not only is this lethal, it’s illegal, as these levels break the limits our own air quality laws put on pollution.

So what’s causing this problem, and what can we do? Firstly, this story should not put you off cycling. The biggest cause of London’s air pollution is its road traffic and, within that, diesel vehicles. In fact, the diesel engine is the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, some of the most dangerous air pollutants in the city. If we used less vehicles, by cycling, tubing, busing and walking to work, or switched to cleaner alternatives, like electric vehicles, we’d nearly solve the problem. In fact, our latest report shows that if we phased out most diesel cars in inner London, we’d have brought all but 0.04 per cent of London to within legal levels of air pollution. This can only happen if more of us use clean transport options, like cycling, and if it becomes more expensive for people to drive the most polluting vehicles.

Such a change won’t be easy. Many Londoners rely on diesel cars to get to work and school, or diesel vans for their businesses. This is partly because the UK government has incentivised diesel over the last couple of decades, mainly because diesel used to emit less carbon and so could help action on climate change, and because the government was not aware of how much air pollution was also being kicked out. Therefore, we’re recommending that central government help out with a scrappage scheme, to lower the cost of switching to a clean vehicle. Furthermore, all this would be made easier if the government gave the mayor control over vehicle excise duty (VED), so London could decide where to spend the money – as it stands, none of the VED Londoners pay is to be spent on transport in the city.

These measures could make sure London stops breaking the law by exposing its population to high levels of air pollution. But we think London can and must go further; one of the most interesting findings coming out of the science is that no level of exposure to air pollution is safe. That means London will ultimately have to begin phasing out any vehicles that produce air pollution.

This will not only increase the amount of cycling and walking – with all the health benefits that result – but change the way we think about traveling around the city. Apps that help us do this more efficiently – like Google Maps and Citymapper – and car share providers who are increasingly giving us the option to not buy a car – including Zipcar and DriveNow – are already showing us what this world may look like. It could also mean that we go beyond our current idea of the 9-5 weekday and minimise the amount of commuting we’re doing in the first place. Now wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. He tweets @lesloz

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