Open letter on improving air quality to save lives after lockdown

A coalition of environment and transport organisations are calling on the government to prioritise cycling and walking. On 8 May 2020, they sent this open letter to ministers, council leaders and city mayors.


To the Secretaries of State for Transport, Environment and Chancellor,
To the leaders of local and regional authorities,
To city mayors,

We, the undersigned, are calling on the Westminster national government, local and regional authorities and city mayors to urgently and fundamentally redesign transport in a way that is better for public health, better for cleaner air, and better for the climate. All have a vital role to play, with a particular need for national government leadership in delivering this transformation. We need our political leaders to act immediately to avoid a spike in private vehicle use and a bounce-back in toxic air pollution post lockdown.

It has been widely reported that the reduction in road traffic that followed restrictions brought in to tackle the Covid pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented drop in air pollution across the whole of the UK. Some of Britain’s largest cities have seen a 60% fall in nitrogen dioxide levels compared to last year, with pollutants halving at some of the worst air pollution hotspots in the country.

This sudden improvement in air quality is the by-product of a major public health emergency that has cost thousands of lives and caused untold suffering to so many people. Yet the unexpected drop in toxic pollution has also provided a rare glimpse of what life can be like without noxious gasses in our towns and cities. Car-free streets have been reclaimed by people cycling and jogging, wildlife is thriving, and carbon emissions are falling.

There are already signs, however, that these benefits may not last long. As the latest figures from some post-lockdown cities in China suggest, there is a significant risk that congestion and toxic fumes will return as soon as restrictions are lifted. Concerns over the safety of crowded buses and trains may also cause more people to abandon public transport, increasing car use even further. Unless we take action now, the clean and safe air we have enjoyed over the last few weeks will become a distant memory.

Toxic air has been estimated to be responsible for the equivalent of up to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year as well as billions of pounds in costs to the NHS. Initial studies are suggesting potential links between exposure to air pollution and more severe impacts from Covid-19.

It is therefore vital that as part of the post-covid green recovery programme, local, regional and national governments take immediate action to lock in some of the reduction in road traffic we have seen so far and put in place measures to make sure that when the nation gets moving again, it does so in a cleaner, safer way.

Some of Europe’s largest cities such as Milan and Brussels have already taken steps to prioritise walkers and cyclists in their city centres, while Paris will be rolling out 650 kilometres of cycleways over the next few days. In the UK, there have been isolated initiatives but for this change to be transformational and long-lasting it needs to be promoted and coordinated by both national and local government.

As a recent survey of 20,000 drivers conducted by the AA suggests, a significant segment of the public is already considering driving less and cycling more post lockdown, indicating a degree of public support for policies aimed at promoting these behaviours.

It would be completely absurd if, after the unprecedented efforts and sacrifices made to save thousands of lives from Covid-19, we allowed thousands more to be cut short by the devastating impacts of toxic pollution.

Now more than ever, we need our political leaders to rise to the challenge of completely reshaping the way we move around our towns and cities. We urge you to undertake the necessary measures outlined below without delay. Now is the time to reimagine our urban spaces and rethink our transport system, placing people’s health and wellbeing at the very heart of it.


Greenpeace UK
CPRE, the countryside charity
Cycling UK
Environmental Defense Fund
Global Action Plan
Living Streets
Transport Action Network
Transport & Environment

Specific measures needed to protect and improve air quality after lockdown.

We call on mayors and local and regional authorities to:

  • Rapidly redesign roads to create more space for walking, cycling and micro mobility. Wider pavements, protected cycle tracks and measures to tackle rat-running traffic can be introduced straight away, which can then be transitioned into permanent infrastructure over the long-term, once additional resources from national government have been provided.
  • All towns and cities should create networks of low-traffic neighbourhoods, or ‘Mini- Hollands’, learning from the successful example of the Walthamstow scheme. This involves significantly restricting through-traffic in residential and shopping streets through bus gates, bollards and planters, and creating area-wide networks of direct routes for walking and cycling for all ages and abilities, including sufficient bike storage throughout towns and cities.
  • People who walk and cycle should also be given priority along main roads, through widening pavements, introducing cycle and lanes, removing car parking spaces and increasing seating, trees and planters.
  • Maintain and where feasible increase public transport capacity, even while ridership is lower, in order to allow more people to use these services during a period of social distancing. This will also ensure there are enough services to cope with greater demand and protect public safety, once social restriction measures are eased and lifted.

We call on the Westminster national government to:

  • As part of the Government’s green recovery plan, rapidly increase funding to at least £6 billion over the next 5 years to get the Government on track to reaching its target of doubling cycling and increasing walking by 2025 in its existing strategy
  • Building on this increased local capacity, publish a bold new Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy with increased ambition, seeking to raise investment further to roll out permanent walking and cycling infrastructure on levels equivalent to countries like the Netherlands, where active travel levels are higher.
  • Adjust the default speed limit in built up areas to be 20MPH, with higher limits only being allowed exceptionally along main roads where segregated cycling lanes are in place.
  • Update legislation by 2021 to support safe use of micro mobility options like e- scooters on roads.
  • Abandon the £27bn roads programme and repurpose the money intended for new roads to deliver measures supporting local clean mobility.
  • Commit to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, increasing public procurement for electric vehicles and mandating local authority delivery on electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • Mandate, coordinate and sufficiently fund local authorities to create clean air zones so all towns and cities can aim for World Health Organisation guidelines for air quality for particulates as well as an improved NOx standard. Delays to existing plans should be kept as short as possible. New clean air zones should be created as soon as possible, with the opportunity to increase ambition further in the future to zero emission zones. All clean air zones must be supported by complementary measures, such as bus retrofit programmes and traffic flow management.

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