The Clean Air Act is 60 years old. But as long as we prioritise the convenience of rich motorists, pollution will continue to kill
Sixty years ago this week the Clean Air Act was passed to protect us from the effects of pollution. Since then, car ownership has trebled in the UK. Two million households own three or more vehicles. Today, around 40,000 people each year die prematurely of illness linked to emissions. On Monday, medics from the Faculty of Public Health published a report in Scotland urging rapid and radical replanning of our towns for the sake of safety. They had in mind air quality, not collisions or obesity.
Everybody knows this. Everybody computes the cause and effect. Yet we are encouraged to stop our ears and ignore it as best we can. Incentives for people to quit their motors remain minimal. Cheerleading for top rides is still an endlessly indulged national pastime. Such widespread blitheness means any suggestion that people might have a moral responsibility not to slowly kill others while on the school run is met with scoffing.
Every day, I walk to the station along a street lined with largely multiple-occupancy terraces built about 40 years before it was classified as a B-road. Usually, it’s a slog. There’s a lot of traffic – about the same capacity as the A-road which runs parallel, despite the absence of bus routes. Plus, the pavement is often impassable. Parked cars line both sides of the street and are permitted to take up half the pavement too. Negotiating your way is grim, even without a wheelchair or buggy
But for the past couple of months, this road has been closed to through traffic because of repairs to a railway bridge. Now, it is heaven: or, rather, it is the residential street it was intended to be. You can hear the birds, you can speak to people without shouting and then retching. But the absence of traffic is not, in fact, the most striking thing. Rather, it is the pavement. The number of parked cars has dropped dramatically. Now, there are just a scattering.
Slowly, you twig: not only do the people who live on the street not drive down it, they don’t park on it either – because by and large they don’t own cars. Those vehicles belonged to residents of the 20 or so posher roads in the same residents’ zone, cutting their commute by a couple of minutes by driving to the station.
In September, the bridge will be repaired, the road will reopen, the cars will flood back, lining the pavements, belting down the street. Motorists will breathe a sigh of relief. The residents will just try to breathe.