How we can learn from each other to improve our future air-quality

With the introduction of the long-awaited Clean Air Zone on Tuesday 1st June, coinciding with the third and fourth step of the Government’s route out of lockdown, we are likely to see a return to office spaces in Birmingham in June. But what are we going back to?

Setting aside COVID-19, in any normal year, “poor air quality is the biggest public health risk to people in Birmingham,” according to Steve Arnold, Head of Clean Air Zone at Birmingham City Council. Transport in Birmingham currently accounts for the second-highest amount of carbon emitted in the city, with road traffic polluting our air with levels of nitrogen dioxide way above the acceptable limit.

We are re-entering a city that is unacceptably dangerous with regards to toxic levels of pollution, and more needs to be done to help create a low-carbon return from lockdown.

Businesses are being asked to ‘get ready’ for the Clean Air Zone and be prepared to promote active and sustainable travel plans, to help reduce carbon emissions and make a Birmingham a greener, safer city. 60 businesses and 240 schools have signed up to an online toolkit, which assists in creating and implementing effective travel plans for companies. This could be anything from a car share, to a reduced price bus season ticket.

The main intention is to draw people away from car usage. The average car is parked 98% of its lifetime and the over-reliance on car travel – particularly for short journeys – is a main contributor to physical inactivity which is linked to heart disease and cancer, the biggest causes of premature death.

Birmingham City Council is clearly thinking consciously about the future of Birmingham and improving air quality, which in turns, seemingly creates a better quality of life for everyone. This ambition needs to be matched throughout the UK, so everyone can feel confident to go back into the office.

With a lot of construction work going on around the city, it is key that developers must also play a role in being considerable constructors and work with new methods that help achieve a lower-carbon output. It’s worth Birmingham City Council ensuring these developers are also playing their part and following suit of the elected leaders, to continue setting the example.

This ambition is being matched by the Mayor. Andy Street’s plans for improved rail services will be 150 miles long, with the ambitious transport network expansion featuring eight new Metro lines, 380 new stops and 21 new rail stations. The ability to freely move around and across the city would be a major boost for commuters, who often find it difficult to do so.

This is part of a wider ideology that makes use of public transport, walking and cycling – the  three biggest factors in changing air quality.

Another excellent example of significantly upgrading local transport is the work being done by National Express West Midlands. They have committed to becoming carbon zero by 2035 and currently have 29 electric vehicles in service, with 20 hydrogen deckers arriving this year. Even their older buses have retrofitting new exhausts, which isn’t legally zero-carbon, but what comes out is considerably cleaner than what went in.

The local population has a part to play in improving air quality too. However, you don’t have to have been born in Birmingham to play your part. According to figures from the University of Birmingham, 78% of their undergraduates walk or cycle to University.

As we look ahead to the Mayoral elections in May too, it would be interesting to see from any candidate – Andy Street (Conservative), Liam Byrne (Labour) or Jenny Wilkinson (Liberal Democrats) – whether there is a manifesto pledge regarding lower carbon emissions, something we’ll know more about in the coming months as the campaigning period begins, which we will also be looking ahead too.

It seems that there is a concerted effort to help minimise any future risk to health in Birmingham, with people and organisations around the West Midlands doing their part to promote greener and more sustainable travel – following on from the dedication the Mayor has put in to enhancing local public transport.

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