A new study has revealed that simply taking side streets while walking through a city can cut an individual’s exposure to air pollution by half – and providing pedestrians with specific guidelines to avoid high-traffic routes could significantly benefit public health.
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is now the “world’s largest single environmental health risk” – especially since 80 percent of the global urban population residing in cities that exceed the WHO’s standards for pollution. London is one of these cities, with illegally high levels of noxious air.
A team from King’s College London examined seven popular walking routes through the city, including King’s Cross Station to Euston Station, Embankment to Covent Garden, and Earl’s Court to Holland Park. While a group of researchers traveled on the main roads, a second group walked simultaneously along backstreet routes – all carrying equipment to measure the black carbon emitted from diesel vehicles, the main source of London’s excessive pollution.
Overall pollution exposure dropped by 53 per cent for those taking side routes, with cuts ranging anywhere from 30 to 60 per cent.
“This could be better in so many ways for people’s pollution exposure and probably better for their sense of well-being, as well,” said Gary Fuller with King’s College London. “Anything you can do to limit your exposure will be good for your health.”
The project was commissioned by Cross River Partnership, a public-private city regeneration group which receives funding from the Mayor of London, who have already begun signposting clean air walking routes in London. The first was the King’s Cross to Euston route, and according to Brendon Harper, CRP’s air quality project manager, there have already been three times more foot traffic along the route – and a boost to local businesses.
“There is a lot of work going on to improve air quality in London, but we are not going to get to the point anytime soon in the next couple of years where we are meeting the WHO targets,” he said. “So it is very important we encourage people to change the way they walk and cycle so they can reduce their exposure.”
Air pollution in London and throughout the United Kingdom has been referred to as a “public health emergency” – nitrogen dioxide levels have been above legal limits in nearly 90 percent of urban areas in the UK since 2010. According to Oliver Hayes, an air pollution campaigner with Friends of the Earth, more should be done to address this growing health concern.
“The current plans for cleaning up our air are just not enough,” he said. “With 40,000 early deaths each year from air pollution, and children’s young lungs especially vulnerable, this is a sickening amount of suffering that is preventable.”
With clean air signposts and online walking maps generated by the new research, more people will be able to avoid London’s heavily polluted main streets – and Fuller hopes the group’s research will inspire studies in other urban areas across the globe.
“The same applies anywhere, so it would be great if these ideas were taken up in other cities,” he said. “We weren’t surprised at the results, but it was very nice to be able to demonstrate what we believed we could find.”