What does the pandemic mean for Air Quality?
Normally, we mark Clean Air Day in June, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has meant that it is taking place on October 8 - an unusual date for unusual times.
While lockdown has been a stressful and difficult time for everyone, it has at least provided useful information about air quality in our cities. Nitrogen Oxide emissions reduced considerably but concentrations still remained in many areas, while particulate levels decreased considerably less; a demonstration of how important it is to focus on other sources of emissions rather than just road traffic in the bid to improve air quality.
As the Prime Minister warns that restrictions will continue into 2021, it is natural to wonder whether what we are seeing on our transport network is “the new normal”, a rapid acceleration of existing trends. Even before the recent tightening of restrictions, London Underground occupancy was at a third of what it had been before the pandemic, while traffic was around two thirds of its previous level. This poses the question; if the traditional commute is coming to an end, what does this mean for Air Quality?
If we are moving towards a new pattern of travel, with much greater adoption of home and remote working, the re-emergence of local hubs and the potential decline of large conurbations, than the transport model that has emerged over the last few decades- the London Congestion Charge, high capacity rail, Clean Air Zones - risks suddenly looking obsolete. Are the air quality hotspots of the future in suburbs and outlying towns rather than in central urban areas?
The rapid pace of change makes it more important than ever that we obtain a detailed and accurate understanding of air quality, traffic flows, and movement patterns in our cities. If we don’t know how things are changing, how can we develop responses?
Projects such as the detailed air quality monitoring map Bosch is creating in Brixton in collaboration with Transport for London give cities the tools to be flexible. If we don’t know what the future will bring, at least we can plan based on the present.