Meeting targets to increase the number of trips made on foot and by bicycle could prevent as many as 8,300 premature deaths per year linked to air pollution.
This was among the findings of research carried out by the environmental consultancy Eunomia, on behalf of the transport charity Sustrans which is calling for support for measures to increase walking and cycling alongside other efforts to address air pollution in towns and cities. At present around air pollution is linked to around 40,000 deaths in the UK every year.
As part of the research, Eunomia developed a model to estimate the contribution of walking and cycling in reducing levels of pollutants, including particulate matter, PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide, NO2 â€“ and the subsequent benefits to public health.
This estimates the benefits of air quality improvement from reducing motor emissions due to shifting to walking or cycling and the potential changes in personal exposure to pollution depending on how people choose to travel.
According to the research, if the annual targets to double journeys by bike and increase walking by 300 everyday trips per person in the governmentâ€™s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for England were met, this would prevent more than 8,300 premature deaths from air pollution and around Â£5.67 billion in savings to the economy over ten years.
4,000 premature deaths could be avoided in Scotland, if the vision of 10% of everyday journeys by bike set out in Scotlandâ€™s Cycling Action Plan was realised, the organisations have claimed.
Commenting on the findings, Xavier Brice, chief executive of Sustrans, said: â€œAt a time when road transport is responsible for the majority of air quality limit breaches in the UK, it has never been more important to reduce the number of motorised vehicles on our roads.
â€œThe new findings reiterate that walking and cycling has a huge role to play in tackling the air quality crisis that causes tens of thousands of premature deaths every year. If we are to make a major modal shift, we need to provide a network of direct protected cycle routes on roads in addition to quieter routes across the UK.
â€œWeâ€™re urging governments at all levels to include funding for walking and cycling infrastructure in their Clean Air Plans and for the UK Government to prioritise investment in active travel as part of wider urgent action to make air safe again.â€
The model developed by Eunomia analysed the impact on air quality of people walking and cycling across local routes and networks in England and Scotland.
The factors which drove higher health and economic benefits were: increasing the number of people swapping the cars for walking and cycling; targeting regular travellers; and focussing on more densely populated urban areas.
Equally, exposure to pollution of people walking and cycling was reduced on off-road and quiet routes.
Ann Ballinger, lead modeller and air quality expert at Eunomia, said: â€œThis is the first time that Sustransâ€™ data has been used alongside public health data to understand what impacts walking and cycling schemes have on an individualâ€™s exposure to air pollution.
â€œOur analysis suggests investment in cycling and walking has considerable potential to improve local air pollution. We believe this innovative model could be of considerable value in supporting local authorities and government as these bodies consider options to tackle the air pollution emergency at a local level.â€