Following a recent report that air pollution may cause more UK deaths than previously thought, we have a guest post from Emilia Hanna:

When I started cycling with my toddler strapped to my back in a sling, I raised a few eyebrows amongst fellow mum friends. “You’re very brave,” one said to me, but we all know “you’re brave” is code for “you are absolutely stupid/crazy/reckless.”

Maybe it was because I was carrying Finn in a sling on my back rather than putting him into a conventional child seat or bike trailer which worried them. But my logic was this: if we got into an accident, he would be safer if he was strapped to me than if he was strapped to the bike: I’d had a bike accident in my early 20s and while I didn’t suffer a scratch as I was able to control my fall, my bike went flying and was a write-off.

And my son is safer from traffic fumes at height than down in a trailer where he would be on the same level as car exhausts. He is showing early signs of asthma and the air pollution, which is breaking safety standards in many parts of Edinburgh, makes it harder for children’s lungs to develop fully and can lead to respiratory problems throughout someone’s life.

Air pollution is a silent killer causing 2000 early deaths every year in Scotland alone. There are 32 declared Pollution Zones in Scottish towns and cities where levels are breaking safety standards. Pollution has been linked with asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. Children, the elderly, and people who suffer from other health problems (who, all too often, are those living in poverty) are the worst affected.

What a sorry state of affairs it is that trying to get my son from A to B in a quick, healthy and environmentally responsible way! This presents me with three challenges:

  1. The risks of cycling next to speeding traffic without safe cycle paths and the nerve-wracking choice of what is the least dangerous option (sling, child seat, or trailer).
  2. Air pollution, which breaks safety levels in many parts of Edinburgh.
  3. The societal norms that mean cycling is still viewed as the ‘radical’ option and looked upon as an marginal or ‘awkward’ mode of transport.

These three challenges can be pinpointed to the dominance of the private car in our culture, which is a direct product of how our roads are designed to accommodate cars first, pedestrians second, and cyclists third.

In Copenhagen, cycling makes up 36% of all journeys, and car use makes up only 29%. There are bike superhighways on congested routes, bikes get priority over cars at many junctions and, in 2008, the city introduced a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) which restricts the most polluting vehicles. Even the Danish crown prince, His Royal Highness Frederik, can be regularly spotted on his bike. Quickly translated this means cycling is a means of transport fit for royalty and not just the “brave” (code: reckless).

Copenhagen meets strict European air quality limits almost everywhere, even though it is a city the same size as Glasgow, clearly showing that tackling transport really does improve air quality.

In Scotland, we need to be able to cycle safely from A to B. We need air that is clean to breathe and that does not give us cancer or heart problems. We need for cycling to be more commonplace and more socially acceptable than driving. This is why Friends of the Earth Scotland will once again support Pedal on Parliament on April 25th.

The Scottish Government is, right now, consulting on a crucial transport policy, the “Low Emission Strategy”, which is all about ending air pollution in Scotland and promoting better transport choices. It has promised clean air by 2020 and Low Emission Zones for cities to keep out the most polluting vehicles. However, their draft Strategy lacks vision and clarity and could end up being a forgotten document unless we force them to take seize this opportunity and ensure they deliver on their promises.

To ensure real action, the final Strategy needs to contain a Low Emission Zones Framework which specifies the efficiency requirements for cities and explains how LEZs will be enforced. The Government must also provide funding for local authorities to set up these Zones. The Strategy should specify a fully-costed range of other measures to reduce traffic levels enough to ensure clean air, as Low Emission Zones alone will not be enough to tackle our chronic air pollution problem. The Strategy should also consider measures to further boost active travel, public transport usage, and to deter car use (e.g. including 20mph zones, parking controls and charges, and congestion charging).

In years to come, I want to be confident that Finn will be safe cycling on his own on our streets. Safe both from the hazards he can see and, crucially, safe from those he can not see.

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Friends of the Earth Scotland is calling on organisations and individuals to take five minutes and ask for clean air.
Respond to the Low Emission Strategy here.

Emilia Hanna is air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland. Join her and thousands of others at Pedal on Parliament on Saturday 25th April. Meet at noon in The Meadows, Edinburgh.

Want to breathe freely?