A public health tragedy has delivered clean air — how do we hold onto it?

How can we maintain air quality levels while eliminating COVID-19 and getting people back to work safely?

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Delhi — a city that regularly suffered the most polluted air of any city in the world prior to the COVID-19 crisis — has in the last few weeks recorded levels of fine particle pollution (PM10) low enough to meet World Health Organisation clean air standards (if such levels were sustained throughout the year). London, where hourly average NO2 in the centre of the city had already been reduced by 35% following a ratcheting up of restrictions on polluting vehicles through Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Low Emission Zone, has seen a further 26% reduction in NO2 during lockdown. As governments relax lockdowns and people start to return to offices and factories, two of the biggest questions facing city leaders are how to preserve clean air while enabling an economic recovery to get underway, and how to provide COVID-19-safe mobility for millions of people.

Road closures in Delhi have factored into the city’s decreased air pollution during the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Abhishek Singh

In the past when cities have experienced temporary drops in air pollution most urban citizens have shrugged their shoulders as the air began to blacken again, accepting it as inevitable. Most people understood that air pollution was bad for them, but the risk of ill-health seemed relatively low. For the least well off, particularly those struggling to survive in informal settlements lacking most basic amenities, air pollution that might slowly damage their lungs over many decades barely registered as an existential threat.

But, as one mayor said during a C40 meeting this week, COVID-19 has changed all that for many. As understanding spreads that breathing in polluted air heightens susceptibility to the virus, dirty skies become an immediate health threat and the ability to breathe clean air becomes more obviously a basic human right.

The mayor’s perspective was from Europe and such shifts in attitudes won’t be universal, but urban citizens from São Paulo to Beijing, Venice to Delhi, have all experienced a taste of cleaner air as cars stayed off the roads and heavy industry took a breather over the past weeks. Meanwhile it seems hardly a day goes by without another report on the possible links between poor air quality, covid and other health conditions. And clean air is not the only benefit of our streets going car-free: CO2 emissions nosedived during lockdown, while a study in California finds that deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents reduced by half as a result of the state’s stay at home order.

It is, however, going to require thoughtful public policy, along with strong public pressure, to hold on to these gains. In many western countries, lockdowns are being eased while new rates of infection still remain high and so there is an expectation that we will have to live within the constraints of the virus for many months, or even years, until a vaccine is developed.

Consequently, transit authorities are advising commuters not to use their services if they have an alternative form of transport, in order to maintain physical distancing for those who have no choice. Encouragingly large numbers of people are choosing to use bikes, e-scooters, or to walk, but probably not enough to avoid big increases in traffic pollution and congestion. Indeed, a survey in the UK found that 59% respondents intended to drive more than use public transport after restrictions are relaxed compared to 51% who said they planned to walk or cycle more.

Even in countries that have virtually eliminated the COVID-19 virus, mass transit passenger numbers are only at around a third of pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in post-lockdown China we’ve seen a shift towards an increase in car use as urban residents avoid public transit, and with it the return of congestion and air pollution. As public transport operators face huge losses of revenues and low oil prices threaten to make electric vehicles less attractive, we face the real prospect of the future we don’t want: dirty air, climate breakdown, a lurking pandemic risk, and dangerous, congested streets.

The situation presents cities with a huge challenge. There is no option to return to business as usual. With the virus likely to be with us to some degree for the foreseeable future, the way we move through the urban environment is already changing radically. Car lobbies, which had been on the defensive, sense an opportunity to push the case for relaxing pollution regulations and are encouraging the conclusion that cities based on density and transit have failed.

The early indications look encouraging. Running transit at lower capacity doesn’t have to mean fewer people can use it, as long there is the political will from governments to finance this essential public good, and clever management of bus and metro services to encourage staggered work times and flattening of transit peaks.

Many cities, such as Auckland, Barcelona and Vancouver are increasing the number of dedicated bus lanes to enable greater frequency of services, meaning that overall capacity doesn’t have to fall so much.

With far more people enthusiastic about walking and cycling, we’ve seen cities across the globe moving swiftly to expand cycle lanes and increase pedestrian infrastructure: Mexico City has installed a temporary bike lane along a major thoroughfare while Paris has put 3 new bike lanes in place along the city’s most crowded metro lines. London is widening pavements and creating car-free zones while Seattle will be reclaiming over 20km from traffic to create ‘stay healthy’ streets. Moreover, it looks like the shift towards walking and cycling could be here to stay: in Beijing, cyclists now ride 69% further than before the pandemic, while in New York, bikes are selling out.

Cyclists use a newly created bike lane in Paris. Photo: Guillaume Bontemps/Ville de Paris

But what if we went further than simply solving the problem of getting everyone to work on time while maintaining physical distancing? What if now was the moment we transformed our streets to make them work for citizens, while stimulating the economic recovery from the outbreak? Perhaps it is time to shift our focus from the throughput of vehicles to creating places where people want to stop and linger. By taking away parking spots, people will spend more time around shops and cafes and there will be more space for physically-distanced gatherings. And why not take this opportunity to make spaces better for citizens while adapting to climate breakdown, by planting trees and green infrastructure?

The city of Paris is working with shop owners via an app to remove parking spaces and create more public space outside stores. In Barcelona, space is being reclaimed for citizens via superblocks in which parking and most through traffic is banned and benches and planters are installed instead, a model which is already inspiring neighbourhoods in other global cities that want to hold onto the air quality gains from lockdown.

Moreover, transforming urban mobility can play a huge part in the economic recovery for cities. Investment in new transport infrastructure will create good jobs quickly. Safe public transport, walking and cycling can all ensure greater and more equitable access to work and other opportunities. E-bikes and e-scooters can travel long distances in a relatively short length of time, opening up possibilities for more jobs, both in their production and in maintaining their provision.

As with all crises, what happens next could make life much worse, or it could be the launchpad for the future we want. Nothing is predetermined or inevitable, there is a choice, and in this crisis the choices made by city leaders, and the impetus given to them by their citizens, is likely to be decisive. Always an optimist, I am going to bet that we are witnessing the beginning of a revolution in city life, in which clean air, green space, equity and social connectivity takes precedence over mobility for private cars. The time is right.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

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