Last reviewed 11 February 2014

Rick Gould reports on the ongoing battle to improve the air quality in our urban environment.

In October 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO), in its reportOutdoor Air Pollution A Leading Environmental Cause of Cancer Deaths, stated that air pollution in cities is carcinogenic and responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually.

Among other things, WHO also reported (Review of Evidence on Health Aspects of Air Pollution — REVIHAAP Project: Final Technical Report) that 90% of city dwellers are exposed to harmful levels of the most dangerous air pollutants; considering the many millions of people who live in cities and urban areas, this would mean that a significant proportion of the world’s population is exposed to air of very poor quality.

There is ample evidence to show that emissions from traffic using fossil fuels is typically the principal source of poor air quality in urban areas; at the same time, while many people realise this, the barriers to change are significant, since the necessary improvements in air quality would require a revolution in the dominant modes of transportation.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) publishes an annual report on transport, known as Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM), which looks at key transportation indicators and trends in cities, to provide the necessary data and information for decision-making and monitoring progress. The latest report (TERM 2013: Transport Indicators Tracking Progress Towards Environmental Targets in Europe) shows that there have been some changes in transport and how this has benefited air quality. On the other hand, the changes required to make a dramatic improvement in air quality will require radical changes to transport and behaviour.

That said, the report does highlight the innovative approaches taken by some cities, and how such changes provide direction for all cities and large towns. So this feature summarises the key indicators of the TERM report, describes how these broadly match the European Commission’s (EC) aspirations for transport in the next few decades, looks at the strongest barriers to change, and then describes examples of how some cities have changed transport through innovation.

The TERM report and its indicators

The EEA has developed several indicators for transport, examining the different modes of transport, their proportions of use, and environmental impacts. The main indicators are shown in Box 1, while the EC’s key objectives and targets for transport in cities are shown in Box 2. In simple terms, the EEA’s key indicators match these objectives and targets, so the data summarised in the annual TERM reports provides decision-makers and transport managers with the information they need to track progress and plan their strategies.

Over the years, the EEA reports that there has been some progress in changing modes of transport and in improving air quality; for example, congestion charging, low-emission zones, low-emission vehicles and the promotion of cycling have, collectively, made strong improvements in some cities. Berlin and London, for example, have dramatically improved the proportion of cycling as a mode of transport for commuting.

On the other hand, London, like many cities, still has problems with air quality. This is partly because of the barriers that constrain the changes required. For example, many people believe that they have a right to use their cars and still prefer to do so. For those that would prefer public transport, the networks are often fragmented and lack the integration required to persuade larger numbers of people to favour it; in other words, the quality of public transport serves as a deterrent.

So in order to bring about changes, the EEA recommends a three-pronged strategy based on: avoiding the need to travel to buy goods and services; shifting people and goods to more sustainable modes of transport; and improving the quality of public transport and the environmental performance of vehicles. The following case studies show how two cities have applied this approach.

Avoiding, shifting and improving

Every year, in every city and town, motor vehicles make many thousands of journeys to deliver goods. This can worsen air quality, so the city of Utrecht has developed a zero-emission delivery service known as the Cargohopper. This is a solar-powered electric vehicle that transports retail goods from a distribution centre on the edge of the city, and then delivers them to shops. Between April 2009 and October 2010, the Cargohopper delivered about 66,000 parcels and boxes in about 12,000 trips. If the goods had been delivered using conventional vehicles, then this would have required more than 16,000 trips and released well over 30 tonnes of CO2, along with other pollutants. Hence, the city has demonstrated how a combination of co-ordination and low-emission vehicles can reduce congestion and improve air quality.

Meanwhile, about 2200km north-east of Utrecht, the residents of the city of Tallinn in Estonia have benefited from very cheap public transport for the past year. If residents buy a travel card for €2, then they can have limitless access to public transport. At the same time, the city’s planners have introduced more electric trolley buses and improved the system of bus lanes. The strategy was expected to reduce CO2 emissions by about 45,000 tonnes per year and provide economic benefits. So what have the results shown?

Although one year’s data should be treated with some caution, the changes are encouraging. For example, in the first three months of 2013, congestion in Tallinn’s centre was reduced by 15% when compared with the end of 2012; the use of public transport has increased by about 12%; and car use throughout the Tallinn area is 9% lower. There is also anecdotal evidence that people are going out more and spending more, so there have been economic benefits.

The EEA’s key transport indicators
  • Final energy consumption according to mode.

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases.

  • Emissions of other air pollutants.

  • Breaches of air-quality objectives caused by fossil-fuelled transport.

  • Traffic noise and its impacts.

  • Volume of passenger transport according to mode.

  • Volume and mode of freight transport.

  • Change in costs of transport according to mode.

  • Tax rates for fuels.

  • Energy efficiency for vehicles and their specific CO2 emissions.

  • Share of renewable energy in the transport sector.

  • Proportion of vehicle fleet by alternative fuel type.

The EU’s main objectives and targets for transport
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be reduced by 20% from 2008 levels by 2030.

  • GHG emissions to be reduced by at least 60% from 1990 levels by 2050.

  • A target average of CO2 emissions of 130g/km for passenger cars by 2015, and 95g/km by 2020.

  • A reduction of 70% by 2050 for the consumption of oil by transport oil, using 2008 as a baseline.

  • All EU Member States to achieve a 10% share in renewable energy for transport by 2020.

  • GHG emissions of maritime bunkers to be lowered by 40% by 2050, using 2005 levels as baseline.