Traffic congestion causes hotspots of air pollution and road traffic accidents

Road traffic holdups reduce air quality and increase risk of accidents

Traffic congestion is a public health issue. It increases air pollution which is a known cause of asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and in particular creates "hotspots" of low air quality borne by local residents.  It increases the risk of traffic accidents through poor driver behaviour and judgement.

One morning last week, I was stuck in a traffic jam several miles long on the A40 outside Oxford, caused by the super-duper high-flow-thru roundabout at Headington being brought to a halt by roadworks eliminating one lane on one exit and a traffic light failing on another!

Those of you who commute to Oxford will pick up my ironic tone: we have had to endure doubling of commuting times & traffic jams for the past 2 years as Oxford has “improved” each roundabout by turn around the ring road!

Philosophical (I wasn’t going anywhere fast), I found myself wishing the clock turned back to a time when most people lived and worked in the same town, and then I moved on to wishing for a reality where “pass me the floo powder and where is the nearest fireplace?”[Harry Potter], or “beam me up scotty!” [Star Trek]  were actual options. These options would improve my quality of life, my health, and my climate. And of course everyone else’s.

It was also not lost on me, in that traffic jam, that this month [March 2016] my colleague and I had made Air Pollution the theme for our free electronic public health newsletter (to receive this, sign up here Global Health Knowledge Base).

I had just written a blog on air pollution caused by traffic jams in India, China, and why it’s the particulates, released by soot & fuel, that we measure for air quality & health. In the blog, Air pollution, can we reduce the impact of cars on urban air quality? , I had hoped that  emerging economies were going to learn from the mistakes of the UK and other “developed” countries. And there I was in the mistake.

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Air pollution, can we reduce the impact of cars on urban air quality?

Air pollution in Delhi

Air pollution in Delhi

In January 2016, Delhi, India, improved air quality on its streets when it conducted a 2-week air pollution reduction experiment, with private cars allowed on the streets only on alternate days, depending on license plate numbers.   The idea is not new and has been tried elsewhere (Paris and Rome) but I guess its novelty (“who’d have thought” brigade) to the USA explained why it made The New York Times!

Last year, it was all headlines about Bejing [China] and the air quality citizens had to deal with. However it would seem that actually Beijing’s levels of PM10 (particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in size), a measure of air quality, decreased by 40% from 2000 to 2013, whereas Delhi's PM10 levels have increased 47% from 2000 to 2011.

Delhi's PM10 levels are nearly twice as much as in Beijing, and it has the worst PM 2.5 levels of 1600 cities in the world. Thus the need for the license plate experiment. In a BBC article, you can read more about the reasons “Why Delhi is losing its clean air war” and discover the varied & innovative measures China has taken to ameliorate motor car use.

No doubt spurred on by Delhi’s experiment, a health journalist in Bangladesh alerted the HIFA forum to the equally bad situation in India’s neighbour, Bangladesh.

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