Tackling poor air quality – a local issue, not just for central government

Matthew Derry, Smart Data & Technology Consultant
07 August 2017
Image of cars parked on a side street.
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Air pollution is a major issue for our urban environments and has never been higher up the political agenda. At the end of July, the government published its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, with headlines dominated by the news that the sale of all new diesel and petrol vans and cars is to be banned by 2040.

There is now much better understanding of the problem posed by poor air quality. The World Health Organisation estimates that globally 7 million people die as a result of it, making it the fourth largest threat to human life after high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. In the UK around 50,000 people die prematurely from air pollution each year.

To truly tackle this issue, however, we can’t just rely on intervention by central government. We need to look at and address the causes of air pollution locally as well. London is, of course, most affected, but other cities in the country also have severe problems. Birmingham is one of them and has been chosen, along with four others, to form Clean Air Zones (CAZ) as part of the government’s strategy to tackle poor air quality. Through various projects we’ve been involved in as part of this, we’ve been able to explore the issue of air pollution at a local level.

Gamification of driving styles

Greenwave is a project targeting driver behaviour, through a smartphone application created by Idox Transport. The app helps drivers to improve their driving style through ‘gamification’ – the application of typical elements of game play in other areas, in this case driving style. Drivers are awarded points and ranked in a monthly table based on their driving performance. The App communicates with Birmingham City Council’s Intelligent Transport System (ITS) to tell drivers when lights are changing, allowing the driver to reduce their speed in a more economical and environmentally friendly manner. It has been shown that a more informed driving style, with less heavy breaking and quick accelerating will dramatically improve fuel efficiency and consequently a reduction in emissions. The trial, which is funded by Innovate UK is due to take place in 2017 across a number of Amey operated vehicles, with the aim to deliver a 10% reduction in monthly fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Clean Air Zone Trial

We have also partnered with Birmingham City Council and Siemens to operate a Low Emission Zone trial, which has quantified the type of vehicles on certain segments of roads in high traffic areas in the city. The trial has enabled the average pollution from each type of vehicle to be calculated, and the type of journeys and routes completed. This has all been achieved through the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras and Low Emission Zone software from Siemens and data analytics from Amey. It is hoped the conclusions can help inform the council’s strategy for a reduction in emissions as part of the Clean Air Zone obligations being introduced by Government – potentially introducing a charge for certain vehicles when entering high pollution areas. Initial results suggest a breakdown of traffic as: 81% domestic cars; 9% light good vehicles; 4% buses and taxis.

Capturing and displaying air quality data

In the UK a network of sensors is used as DEFRA’s tool to capture air quality data. However the development of low-cost sensor technology has now resulted in the ability to deploy much more sophisticated tools that provide a more accurate picture of the air pollution that is taking place in cities. This creates much more data that requires careful analysis however in partnership with Newcastle University, we have created a platform to analyse and display these air quality trends so we understand what is going on at specific locations.

These projects are all aimed at either directly reducing air pollution or allowing us to understand the issues that lie at the heart of the problem. Hopefully they can play a part in informing future air pollution strategy in Birmingham.

With as pressing an issue as air pollution, it is crucial that an informed approach, using data as a foundation, is taken to ensure the environment and citizens do not continue to suffer because of our transport needs. We hope these projects will help stimulate discussion and prompt others to take action to address the severe problem of air quality - not just in the UK but further afield as well.

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