Joel Renouf-Cooke | News Print Sub-Editor

Large cities are breathing a sigh of relief as air pollution levels plummet due to Coronavirus restrictions. Cities such as Sydney, London, Delhi and Beijing have all reported a drop in the amount of both CO2 and NO2, the pollutants that contribute the most to dangerous air pollution in the atmosphere.

In London, travel restrictions have led to a reduction in air pollution of almost 50% at some of the cities most polluted junctions and roads. Figures released by the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, have shown that measures taken in 2017 to reduce pollution levels in the city had already led to a 35% drop in harmful Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) emissions and a further 44% reduction in London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). 

Courtesy of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, which have stipulated that all non-essential travel is to be avoided at all costs NO2 levels in the city have dropped a further 27% in the last four weeks with some of the city’s most polluted areas experiencing a NO2 reduction up to 50%.  

Mr Khan, who has been the Mayor of London since 2017, has also warned that although the news is welcome, efforts must continue to ensure pollution does not rise again to dangerous levels after restrictions are eased.

“This cleaner air should not just be temporary. So, once the current emergency has passed and we start to recover, our challenge will be to eradicate air pollution permanently and ensure the gains we’ve made through policies such as ULEZ continue.”

Statistics from France, Spain, Germany and the United States have all reported disproportionately high numbers of Covid-19 related deaths in areas which, before the outbreak, had dangerously high levels of pollution. Many cities across Europe and the UK, have begun to unveil ambitious cycling and walking schemes to ensure people can move around safely and maintain the environmental benefits, in terms of cleaner air and safer streets, that have come about amid the lockdown.

In order to combat pollution levels and allow for safer pedestrian travel within UK cities – many of which have narrow pavements as well as areas in which it is impossible to maintain a safe distance from other people – some councils are beginning to impose road closures and temporary pedestrianisations of town centres. In Manchester, the council has closed Tib Street to traffic, using cones and lights to create two cycle lanes through the city’s northern quarter. 

Brighton is also developing its own traffic restrictions, closing Madeira Drive with access only for pedestrians and cyclists, it is the first in a number of planned closures around the city. Brighton and Hove council has drawn up plans to close more roads to traffic, converting them too into cycle lanes and footpaths, a measure which will contribute to safer travel, both in terms of infection and traffic as well as by encouraging a healthier population, benefitting from the reduced pollution and larger areas within which to exercise. 

Councillor Anne Pissaridou, chair of the city’s environment, transport and sustainability committee, said: “Madeira Drive is a long, wide road right by the seafront and will create an extra safe open space for local people in the area to use for their daily walk or bike ride. It will provide a traffic-free place for the many residents in that area who do not have access to a garden.

“We are pleased to be able to offer this change so quickly and are considering other locations to see if we can extend this to other roads in the city.”

Such measures are also being imposed in other cities too, with Vancouver closing roads around its Stanley Park district – an Urban park within the area – and Berlin widening cycle lanes. 

The new measures, imposed and planned, will aim to increase the number of areas suitable for people to exercise in without fear of infection, as well as serving to reduce motor traffic and road emissions. However, councils are also continuing to stress the importance of social distancing and respecting each other’s space and the governments continues to advise people only travel if essential.  

“Practising social distancing is making us all aware of the importance of public spaces and making us rethink how we use them, but I would also ask that cyclists and pedestrians respect each other’s space and safety in this shared area.  We’re all in this together.” Pissaridou added. 

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