30 March 2021
Dr Andrew Turner, Senior Research Associate at ARC West, blogs about the development of Clearways, our new air quality and transport project.
We have established what ARC West’s public health and prevention research priorities are by consulting our partners and collaborators over the past year. A topic that came up again and again was air pollution and transport.
This has been thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, when vehicle traffic fell dramatically and increases in air quality have been observed as a result. During the pandemic, councils also put in place measures to encourage cycling and walking – active travel – by creating new temporary cycle lanes and widening pavements to allow social distancing.
These immediate changes exist alongside longer-term plans to improve air quality and encourage active travel that have been in place since before the pandemic. For example, the city of Bath has created a Clean Air Zone, which means people will be charged to drive into the city centre. Bristol is to launch its own Clean Air Zone later in 2021. Bus route improvements and schemes like park and ride also aim to provide alternatives to reduce congestion and air pollution.
Turning an important, far-reaching and timely topic into a research project can be a challenge. Air pollution, transport and health are tightly intertwined. You could examine behaviours, like active travel, and ask what effects they have on individual’s health, or what effects they have on air quality (such as by replacing journeys by car). You could examine exposure to various air pollutants, and ask what are the effects of air pollution exposure, or what are the health benefits of reducing air pollution. Equally, you could examine the effects of infrastructure to ask how cities should be designed to encourage active travel or improve air quality, or why people do or don’t choose active travel.
For the Clearways project, we’ve initially opted for a different approach. We hope to understand how the cluster of issues around air quality, transport and active travel are understood by local authorities and the public. We will speak to local authority staff to explore how they make decisions about their air quality and transport plans, what evidence they use to do it, and what information would help them to plan. We will also speak to members of the public to explore what kinds of changes they think councils should make, what councils should consider and how they should work with communities when making plans.
To ensure we’re asking the right questions, we’ve conducted public involvement work to gather views from a range of individuals and organisations, such as walking and cycling campaigning groups, about what’s important to understand about how and why changes are made to local transport systems. Our questions will also be informed by the concerns and priorities of members of the public taking part in Create to Collaborate workshops.
As the project begins to crystallise and we begin our first conversations with local authorities, it’s been eye-opening – as a researcher – to see the benefits of deliberately living with uncertainty about the scope and aims of a project, so that it can be better formed from a wider range of input. It also means starting the research even more excited about what we will find out.