We're Breathing Dirty Air – and We Know How to Fix It

Sarah Rock

Dr Sarah Rock is a lecturer in transport and urban design in TU Dublin. She is programme director of the MSc in Urban Regeneration and Development, a course due to be relaunched in January 2020.


When I turn around to coax my five-year-old son to try and move his little legs a bit faster on our daily walk to school, I notice that he is holding his breathe again.

“Quick, run!” shouts my eight-year-old daughter. We sprint a few metres.

This is now our daily ritual as we try and avoid the worst of the puffs of exhaust fumes on our journey.

My kids do not see this as a game. They are, as perhaps we all should be, distressed that the grown-ups who are supposed to protect them and the environment we live in are, in fact, doing the opposite.

Before you assume we live in some super-polluted megacity that you can’t really relate to, I should clarify that our school commute is through leafy Dublin suburbia.

Dublin might not currently be known for its air pollution. But last weekend’s “very poor” air quality in the city and a look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s monitors exposes some worrying data. Inchicore’s monitor shows that fewer than 32 percent of the last 100 days made the “good” rating, while only 9 percent made the cut in Rathmines.

What’s “good” now is unlikely to be good in the near future. A mounting body of international research is beginning to shed light on just how damaging air pollution is for health and well-being.

Scientists at Berkeley Earth have found that the average European smokes the equivalent of 1.6 cigarettes a day worth of air pollution.

Smoking and asthma have long being linked, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a newly published study in The Lancet Planetary Health Journal estimates that traffic-related air pollution accounts for 9 percent of all new cases of paediatric asthma in Ireland.

That research came in the same week as central London, under the leadership of its mayor, Sadiq Khan, implemented its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). This is where older, more polluting petrol vehicles, typically those over 13 years old, and diesel vehicles, typically over four years old, have to pay a hefty fee as well as the the current congestion charge to drive within central London.

London isn’t alone in ousting polluting vehicles. Paris, Madrid and many other cities are doing the same. For both health and liveability reasons.

It is a hard pill to swallow thinking of all those years of government incentives promoting diesel vehicles that turned out to be even more polluting than those that run on petrol.

Transport is the biggest contributor to a key air pollutant, ambient nitrogen dioxide levels, in Irish cities. The majority of this comes from private vehicles. Every time we choose to switch on our car engines – to drop the kids to school, nip down to the shop or drive to work – we make this worse.

We might like to think that electric vehicles are the answer. Showering public funds on car manufacturers to make expensive electric vehicles less expensive would be great, right? That way, we can plod on with city life as we’ve known it for the last 30 years or so. (Yes, before that we largely survived without cars.) But it isn’t that simple.

Cars don’t just provide us great convenience with dirty air as the sole unfortunate side effect, one that perhaps technology can solve. Cars also mean that you’re too scared to let your children play on the street like you used to as a kid, or to cross the road on their own for fear of death.

They mean our traditional village centres die as people opt for the convenience of a car-focused out-of-town shopping mall. They mean communities are separated across heavily trafficked streets, that the elderly pedestrian is left in the middle of a traffic island with vehicles whizzing by a few centimetres away because car movement is always prioritised.

They mean increasing obesity from lack of exercise and when a government tries to invest in better public transport, cycling and walking, drivers try to protect the ease of their travel over the common good.

Investing in cars, whether electric or not, is a continued investment in all these negative consequences.

But there is an answer and the government know it. Perhaps, we all know it. That’s why we have proposals for Metrolink, BusConnects and the Sutton to Sandycove cycle link. It’s a question of investing in them properly and getting the designs right so we don’t repeat the over-engineered mistakes of the past.

We also have to put our money towards wide tree-lined footpaths that go where we want to go and help us enjoy walking. Towards cycle paths that you’d feel comfortable waving and watching your 10-year-old cycle away to school on. Towards swift public transport that doesn’t get stuck behind one person sitting in their car. Towards making this public transport cheaper, faster, and more convenient than using a car.

This may sound easy, but like single-use plastics that need to be consigned to history, it will involve changing our lifestyles.

You may not be able to park right outside your work as that footpath needs to be widened. You may have to wait an extra three seconds at a traffic light to pass through in your vehicle.

You may need to pay to park at the shops so driving is more expensive, but your new regular bus or tram will be cheaper. It might mean no new roads but inspiring new urban greenways instead.

It will require soul searching. But let’s remind ourselves where we started. Would you let your five- and eight-year-old light up a cigarette on their walk to school every day?

What we are doing right now is not that different.

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Sarah Rock: Dr Sarah Rock is a lecturer in transport and urban design in TU Dublin. She is programme director of the MSc in Urban Regeneration and Development, a course due to be relaunched in January 2020.

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