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Clean air and blue skies: Rethinking urban transport

Published on September 07, 2022

To mark International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies 2022, we take a look at the far-reaching impacts of environmental air pollution. As we look towards a net-zero future, changes we make now to urban transport modes will provide the added benefit of improving the air we breathe. Here, Brian Lewis, Managing Director of Air Quality and Carbon at RSK, discusses the rapid expansion of clean air zones and the impact on air quality.

The urban spaces that form the epicentre of our modern lives are some of the worst polluted spaces across the country. Many urban environments and cities are centres of poor air quality, which can have a significant impact on our personal health and that of the planet.

In the UK, poor air quality poses the largest environmental risk to human health. It is known to contribute to life-threatening chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer, which all have a serious impact on life expectancy. The pollutants that are present in the air and cause these conditions can take solid, vapour (liquid) or gaseous forms and are mainly resultant from the combustion of fuels. Vehicle engines that burn petrol or diesel fuels release pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter into the environment. Once released, there is a risk that the pollutants may be inhaled by the population. In high concentrations or with prolonged exposure, this can have serious health implications.

In recent decades, the levels of air pollution across our cities have been gradually decreasing – our air is now cleaner than it was a decade ago. However, there is still a way to go before we achieve clean air and blue skies for all.

A significant part of this transition has been due to vehicular emissions reduction and the introduction of clean air zones across our biggest cities, with the coverage of these set to increase. Driven by the link between cleaner air and better respiratory health, clean air zones have made a notable impact in reducing gaseous and particulate pollution in urban centres. In the UK, a designated clean air zone must set a maximum level of contaminants and measures to protect the respiratory health of the local population. These measures include supporting active and healthy transit modes and engaging with public transport providers to help meet low emission vehicle standards. They are part of wider local strategies and plans around land use and transport to encourage local ambition. The drive for clean air is centred around protecting our health and advocating for better, healthier environments.

But what does this mean in terms of urban transit modes?

The growth of clean air zones has generated greater focus on accelerating the transition to a low emissions economy: growing our electric and other non-fossil-fuel vehicle fleet. The accessibility of green public transport is crucial to achieving cleaner air.

In the UK, Coventry is leading the way in innovative transit systems, having recently launched a demonstration of a new ‘vertiport’ scheme – one of the world’s first such schemes. The vertiport concept utilises drone technology for what are described as eVTOL vehicles – standing for electric vertical take-off and landing – such as air taxis and delivery drones. At the root of the scheme is the idea that short, urban journeys can now be made by electrically powered drone-like vehicles. Whether that be for delivering goods between city centre hubs or helping passengers get from city centre locations to the airport, for example, the vertiport concept is envisaged to increase our use of electric vehicle technology, which in turn improves air quality in our city centres.

In another first, Coventry is also exploring ‘very light’ rail – a battery-powered tram network that will provide a green and accessible way to travel around the city centre, taking visitors from its train station to central attractions.

What these two innovations have in common is that they have reimagined what is possible in terms of urban transit. How we use electric vehicle technology, when combined with growth in renewable energies, will not only transform the way we access and enjoy our city centre spaces but also improve the quality of the air around us. As the clean air zones expand and so too does our use of green transport, it will be possible to improve urban air quality even further and ensure clean air and blue skies for all.

Brian Lewis is managing director of RSK’s air quality and carbon business unit, which provides carbon and sustainability, air quality and air monitoring services.

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Brian Lewis

RSK Air Quality and Carbon Managing Director

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Brian Lewis, Managing Director of Air Quality and Carbon at RSK, has over 35 years’ experience working in the aviation sector and has a particular focus on reducing the impact of aerospace and aviation on the environment. He was awarded UK Environmental Manager of the year by the Institute for Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) for his work in reducing hazardous waste in the industry, is a Chartered Aeronautical Engineer and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

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