Air pollution in cities has been a concern for many decades. It results from the introduction of a range of substances into the atmosphere from a wide variety of sources. Smog was a problematic feature in many cities in Britain earlier in the 20th century, caused by millions of homes with coal fires. A major problem in 21st century Britain is vehicle emissions from petrol and diesel engines. Improvements in levels of air pollution have been achieved through the introduction of legislation enforcing tighter controls on emissions of pollutants from key sources such as industry, domestic combustion and transport. Smog is no longer a troubling feature of everyday life in cities, but pollution from transport is now a major concern.
Over the past few years the seriousness of pollution in cities and the proven health dangers, particularly for children, have become clearer. The more cars there are on city roads, the higher the levels of pollution, especially in areas where there is slow moving traffic, emitting high levels of toxic fumes from diesel and petrol engines into small areas of a city.
Frequent tests of air quality are now carried out in these congested inner city areas to inform the public of the dangers, but these levels of pollution can only be lessened in the longer term by the reduction in the number of vehicles on the roads. Beijing has at times had to ban cars for days at a time to reduce unacceptable levels of air pollution. In April the ultra-low emission zone was introduced in London, meaning older diesel vehicles with high emissions are charged an extra £12 50 a day on top of the congestion charge.
As inner city areas have traditionally been the most polluted, Edinburgh has discouraged drivers from the city centre by various measures over the years. Princes Street and George Street are now mainly car free zones. Limiting parking spaces and charging high parking fees in the city centre, while providing frequent buses to city centre destinations, were methods intended to limit the volume of traffic moving through central Edinburgh. There have been frequent campaigns to encourage people to walk, bike and use public transport whenever possible. The latest project is one proposed for a predominantly pedestrian route from the Meadows, through George the Fourth Bridge and on to George Street. Trams powered by electricity are reducing air pollution to some extent in the city centre, but with each plan to cut pollution levels in the city, new challenges arise.
Thousands of new homes have been or are being built on the outskirts of Edinburgh and in nearby towns. The residents of these homes are likely to work in the city or need to make frequent across the city or into its city centre for a variety of reasons. This has lead to much higher volumes of traffic on roads leading into the city. Some of these routes into the city were not constructed for heavy flows of traffic and are often narrower than roads intended for higher volumes of vehicles. Congestion and resulting air pollution are now becoming a feature in these parts of the city. Admirable efforts to reduce air pollution in inner city areas will now have to be applied to many other parts of this growing city.
When a city’s population grows with the building of many new homes there surely have to be strategies in place to develop a sustainable transport system and other methods to constrain and reduce air pollution. What might these be? Many more buses, smaller sprinter buses offering new routes to many parts of the city, introducing more affordable electric cars as soon as possible, an extention of the tram routes? It may also be essential to strengthen the protection of Edinburgh’s Green Belt, which presently is being reduced due to house-building. There may have to be limits set on building houses in this city. Planting many more woodlands in and around the city may be another essential project in the near future.
There is no question that there will need to be innovative and sustainable plans put in place soon by city planners to tackle the ongoing problems of air pollution before the city is called upon to take more drastic measures to ensure a healthy environment. Citizens of Edinburgh should play a significant part in the development of future planning. There would be many different ideas, solutions and opinions on what is needed and what is possible, but the time to open this debate is certainly now.