Citizens say Yes to cleaner air, No to going back

A majority of Europeans living in cities don’t want to see air pollution return to pre-Covid levels and support radical changes in transport in order to keep air quality improvements. Almost two out of every three people (64%) on average said they do not want to go back to pre-Covid pollution levels, according to a pan-European survey by international polling company YouGov.

Over two-thirds (68%) agreed that cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if it means preventing polluting cars from entering city centres to protect clean air, with as many as 63% of drivers themselves in support. Around three quarters (74%) said cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if this requires reallocating public space to walking, cycling and public transport. Just 10% opposed taking such action.

The survey of 7,545 adults in 21 metropolitan areas across Europe between 14-21 May was commissioned by T&E and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA). It paints a picture of broad public support for radical action to maintain the low levels of air pollution from traffic and other sources when countries imposed pandemic lockdown measures. Since lockdown has been lifted, pollution has ramped back up in China, compounded by unusually high levels of commuter traffic. Already there are similar signs in Europe.

Public transport faces a major challenge due to physical distancing being practiced, yet four in five people (81%) who primarily used public transport before the pandemic said they are willing to return: Half (54%) said they will start riding buses, trams and trains again if sufficient hygiene measures are taken to prevent Covid contagion; the remaining 27% are set to return regardless of risk.

Sascha Marschang, acting secretary general of EPHA, said: ‘People have taken a deep breath of clean air and decided to keep it. Now the invisible killer is visible: air pollution made us sick, worsened the pandemic and hit the most deprived the hardest. Reducing health inequalities by designing a pollution-free city transport system cannot wait any longer.’

T&E’s executive director, William Todts, said: ‘Europeans are demanding more bike lanes, safer public transport and fewer polluting cars. And the mayors of Paris, Brussels and London are building on this overwhelming public support by expanding cycling lanes and reinstating low-emission zones. The challenge now is to make these ‘temporary’ sustainable measures permanent, replace polluting cars with shared, electric vehicles and get other cities to follow suit.’

The survey received remarkably consistent answers in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the UK and Belgium, across different economic, class, age and gender backgrounds.

While 14% of the city dwellers surveyed tended to cycle on work days before lockdown, now one in five (21%) plan to cycle more when lockdown ends fully. For walkers, the figures are 32% and 35% respectively.

Late last month the European Commission unveiled a €1.85 trillion recovery plan to reboot the bloc’s economy baldly hit by the pandemic. The proposal includes a 25% climate spending target. It stresses the need to prioritise investments in sustainable vehicles, charging stations and cycling. 

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency. It caused about 400,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2016, the EU agency estimates. Those living in polluted, big cities are more at risk from Covid, EPHA has warned. Traffic pollution is a major contributor to scores of active EU infringement procedures brought by the EU against governments worth billions of euros in fines.