Transport is a major source of air pollution that harms human health and the environment. Road transport is responsible for around a quarter of UK emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) – a major contributor to climate change, traffic noise and health issues. As the effects of air pollution on our health become better understood, the alarming findings indicate that it's health impacts are far greater than previously thought. Recent research has found that of all the global deaths in 2018, one fifth of them were caused by pollution. In Europe, this figure is estimated at one in ten, which is a shocking number indeed.
Vehicles emit a range of pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), sooty airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (about 30 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair). These tiny specks of pollution lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems such as respiratory ailments and heart disease, which is never ideal, let alone during a pandemic that appears to attack the lungs. They also contribute to acidification and eutrophication, causing serious damage to ecosystems. NOx comprises a mixture of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), the latter which is a toxic gas that causes 79,000 premature deaths in Europe per year.
Air Pollution in Barnet
Whilst we may be forgiven for assuming that Chipping Barnet's leafy and breezy position offers some protection against this deadly killer, there is more to it than meets the eye, literally.... Despite its elevated position, High Barnet High Street still suffers from significant air pollution. Last know levels were measured at 34 mcg/m3*, which it is dangerously close to the World Health Organisation 40mcg limit, posing untold health, environmental and even financial costs to residents, workers and visitors. With 76% of surveyed residents last year either agreeing or strongly agreeing that air pollution in High Barnet is a concern, it really is time to take the matter seriously.
* We are currently carrying out air quality monitoring at various sites in High Barnet, and hope to have updated results by mid July 2021 - watch this space! Thank you Global Action Plan for the equipment and guidance!
As it turns out, High Barnet's unique position is in fact one of it's main downfalls when it comes to air pollution. As a final destination on one of the Northern Line Underground routes, High Barnet is prime drive-and-ride property. Commuters heading into town drive in from miles around, park on the Meadway, St Alban's Road and other restriction-free streets, and then jump on the Tube, saving them a small fortune compared to the rail fares fetched at commuter towns further afield. It is of course, also a major route into and out of London for commercial travel. Whilst this could be viewed by some as an advantage in terms of trade and PR, sadly this is not the case for our town. Unfortunately neither commuters or passers-by appear to be contributing much to our local community other than air pollution, noise and congestion (although we are hoping that some of the projects proposed by the Chipping Barnet Community Plan will make our town more attractive to these groups).
High Barnet also has a number of highly regarded secondary schools, meaning that students travel in from sometimes miles away, either in cars or chartered buses, adding to traffic and air pollution in the area. This is and has been a major cause for concern for many years now, and is a tricky one to solve, largely due to the fact that it is difficult to enforce, and that the culprits are not local residents and hence don't share the same sense of belonging and responsibility to the community.
What is the solution?
So indeed, the question remains, what can be done? Diverting London bound traffic is no small feat. Building more roads is not a practical solution, and is actually a perfect example of Jevons Paradox, where an increase in efficiency ironically leads to an increase in consumption, in this case more cars on the roads than previously (as demonstrated with the Barnet bypass, Hammersmith flyover etc). Commuters could potentially be deterred by extending the existing resident parking zones or introducing car free roads, a contentious issue, but one which needs to be considered seriously given the urgency of the of the situation, especially in the residential areas around schools.
Perhaps thinking about our own car behaviour is an area worth considering? Do we need to drive everywhere? Do we need 2 cars? The recently widened pavements (and newly planted trees) provide safer and more enjoyable walking routes, whilst an increase in cycle parking could tempt the more courageous amongst us, but granted, if venturing any further afield, active travel will prove quite a challenge, not least due to the healthy road gradients! Equally, with many public transport routes running longitudinally, this is not always a practical option, especially for residents travelling to the East and West of the area, or those doing big shops. For residents with mobility difficulties, both active travel and public transport may not be viable options. So while our dependency on cars needs to drastically decrease, realistically this is often easier said than done. This is not to say, however, that if doing to school run, or nipping to the shops, we should feel justified in taking our cars. Air pollution around schools is particularly bad at peak times due to cars dropping off and collecting their children, many of them idling, and is very much an area for concern. Encouraging your school to update their travel plan to reflect the need for more active travel would be a good place to start. (We would be happy to help with this!)
Parking has been another controversial issue in town for some time. Doing away with parking altogether is is obviously neither practical or sensible, but if we are to get a handle on local air pollution, public transport needs to offer the best value for money, and considering that annual maintenance costs for surface car parking spaces is between £500 and £1,000 per space, free parking really isn't a viable option. A more workable solution would be to offer free parking for a limited time e.g. 1 hour, and / or big businesses could subsidise the parking fees for their customers (like cinemas, gyms and restaurants do in many places). On a positive note, Enterprise have launched a car club on St Alban's road, meaning that local residents who only need a car occasionally, don't actually need to own one! And then of course over the next 9 years we will be seeing a rapid transition to electric vehicles. While there are still environmental concerns linked to EVs, in terms of air quality and local pollution, they will make a significant difference. Now we just wait to hear how electric charging points are going to be installed along all the pavements, and for owning an EV to become more affordable.
Thinking about the issue holistically, however, there are many societal and economic considerations that need to be addressed. As consumers we need to build healthier shopping habits including shopping locally, and maybe a bit less. Policy-makers need to build incentives into behaviour modification strategies and infrastructure needs to be almost completely overhauled. We have an interesting decade ahead, and yes the task is ginormous, but don't underestimate the impact that little small, individual changes can make.
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