Right to breathe: The link between transport and air quality
Cities around the world seek out ways to shift, avoid, and improve their infrastructure and transport modes to decrease air pollution. Photo by WBUR/Flickr.

Cities around the world seek out ways to shift, avoid, and improve their infrastructure and transport modes to decrease air pollution. Photo by WBUR/Flickr.

Today, the highest levels of air pollutants are concentrated in developing cities, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Motor vehicles contribute between 25 and 75% of this air pollution. In March 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement citing that 3.7 million pre-mature deaths in 2012 were associated with outdoor air pollution.

In the same month, the World Bank published a report that assesses the health impacts of motorized road transport, and stated that exposure to pollution generated from vehicles is one of the largest causes of death in developing countries. Exposure to particulate matter – tiny acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – and other pollutants spewed out by vehicles and power plants can cause a range of major health problems, such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and in children, respiratory infections.

One of the most likely places for exposure to this air pollution is along transport corridors, where there are both higher levels of pollutants from vehicles and longer exposure to the people walking, bicycling, using transit, or sitting in cars. In order to save lives and improve health for citizens in emerging economies, it is imperative to address air pollution through transport.

Adding to the importance of taking action, the WHO notes that reducing outdoor air pollution also reduces emissions of CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon particles and methane, thus contributing to the near- and long-term mitigation of climate change.

What cities can do: A change in how to think about solutions

Despite recent alarming figures such as those above, air pollution is not a new issue. In fact, air pollution has been on national and local agendas for decades. In considering how to best address these problems, decision-makers and technical experts at the local level can use the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework to develop a sustainable transport system that produces low emissions. Below are examples of cities that applied this conceptual framework to address local transport issues and reduce air pollution:


Residents of Lyon, France wanted to confront the environmental cost of urban sprawl, yet, in avoiding one environmental issue, they also found that they were stopping another. In analyzing the root causes of sprawl, specialists recognized that, in the case of Lyon, sprawl was also the primary contributor to air pollution. The city focused on ways to avoid sprawl through smart urban development, and slowly city leaders began to transform Lyon into a more compact city. Specifically, the planning of dense and human scale cities creates an enabling environment for people to move around the cities in modes that produce little or no air pollutants. Lyon created pedestrian walking paths and cycle tracks along main corridors throughout the city so that people could get rapidly to their destinations without the need for automobile transport.


An essential component in creating vibrant, low-carbon transport systems also demands thinking about how to shift people to alternative modes of transport. Istanbul pedestrianized over 250 streets to encourage walking in the city center. EMBARQ Turkey has worked with the city on pedestrianization and to assess the impact of the project. Today, 2.5 million people walk along the pedestrianized streets. Results from a survey conducted for the project found that 86% of respondents that identified emissions and air quality as a concern indicated that they believe the Historic Peninsula’s better air quality is a result of pedestrianization.


In an effort to address problems with air pollution, officials in Mexico City, Mexico took a comprehensive approach to improve their air quality by improving fuel technology. Instead of simply placing reactive policies on people which reduced the number of days they could drive, or charging for miles driven, officials mandated the removal of lead from the city’s gasoline supply, retro-fitted existing automobiles with catalytic converters, and created legislation to make car makers put in catalytic converters into cars from the outset, instead of trying to retroactively stop people driving high carbon-emitting cars.

Moving forward: What can you do?

While it is important that cities understand the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework and its potential to improve air quality for residents, everyone can do their part to reduce contributions to air pollution from the transport sector. For example, you can use a bicycle trips to reduce car usage in your city. You can find pedestrian paths that get you to your destination, or can even be a catalyst by creating paths in your own community. What will you do to help your city work towards low-carbon transport? Let us know in the comment section!

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