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According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 4.2 million people a year die from outdoor air pollution. In fact, the issue is all-pervading: 91% of people live in places that exceed WHO air quality guidelines.
The primary cause? The fine particulate matter PM2.5 that's emitted from exhausts. It's 30-times smaller than a human hair and can penetrate the lungs causing cancer, heart attacks and respiratory disease.
The issue is pollution dispersal. Densely populated, compact spaces hold more contaminants in the air, a study by Lancaster University found.
To make the point, researchers examined the most and least polluted places in the UK: Luton and Milton Keynes. Two towns in the south east of England only 23 miles apart, but a world's away in levels of pollution.
Founded sometime in the 6th century, Luton was very much built in the era of the horse and cart, while Milton Keynes was designed in the 1960s around modern mobility needs. As a result, Luton has clusters of buildings, a congested core and lots of traffic lights.
Milton Keynes, in comparison, has acres of green space, fast “dual-carriageways" around the perimeter and plenty of roundabouts. Here, pollution is less likely to linger in the air.
However, retrospectively redesigning centuries-old towns and cities is a lengthy and expensive job. Electric cars are one answer, but even by 2040, only 32% of the vehicles on the road are expected to be EVs. And while they might alleviate pollution, they could even make the roads more congested.
How can we address the pollution - and congestion - problem without getting the bulldozers out?
Demand for the curb has never been greater – and it's an area that's ripe for innovation. It's where we make and receive our deliveries, pick up passengers, place bike and scooter drop-off zones and put electric car charging points. It's also where people walk.
This is where real-time data comes in. It can be used to monitor what's happening live at the curb, helping to create flexible areas that could accommodate different users. As Kirk Mitchell, HERE senior vice president and general manager, Americas, explains:
“We could create dynamic zones that could be used for commuting in the morning, then switching to deliveries in the middle of the day, before becoming taxi ranks in the evening."
A recent trial of such an idea in Washington, DC, has seen the curb space being managed to cope with the peaks in demand: by day it's for commuter parking, at night it turns into a ride-hailing pick-up area.
“For a few years now we've even been creating industrial maps that show microscopic levels of curb detail," adds Kirk. “Such as where there's street furniture, bike collection points and resident parking." This can help city planners make more effective use of the space.
Take the sting out of parking
City planners in Oslo, Norway, turned 700 parking spaces into bike lanes, benches and parks in an effort to reduce pollution in the center. Of the few spots that are left, most are reserved for disabled drivers and electric car charging, while delivery drivers are given a small window in the morning for their drop-offs.
Otherwise, the only traffic you'll encounter is on foot or two wheels. As a result, not only did Oslo see a reduction in levels of pollution and congestion, but it recorded zero cyclist and pedestrian deaths in 2019.
It used to be that if you wanted to break your journey up by driving to a parking lot, jumping on a train, and then walking the rest of the way to your destination, you'd have required different apps for navigation and travel information. Now, technology from HERE makes it easier. If you're taking multiple forms of transport, it's simpler to string together these journeys in one app for seamless door-to-door travel. You can even receive live train times, parking information and alternative directions when congestion or delays are detected.
Over in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, city planners have introduced fare integration, allowing passengers to seamlessly move between transport types without the need to buy different tickets.
Park and ride schemes encourage people to leave their cars and take public transport the rest of the way. But they have to be planned effectively, as Pratik Desai, public sector product marketeer at HERE, explains:
“Location data enables us to help urban planners to determine where it's appropriate to build in a city. These systems work really well on the edge of the city, moving into it. People can drive from the suburbs to a strategically located city park and ride that's connected to existing transit infrastructure to complete the rest of their journey."
That's what Leeds, another city in the UK has done, to great success. So far, more than two million journeys have been completed in its car-reduction scheme, that has removed 9,000 cars a week from the city's roads through low-cost bus fares and plenty of edge-of-city parking.
Image credit: Carbon Engineering
Is it possible to suck the carbon out of the air? That's what one pioneering Canadian company is betting on. Carbon Engineering has come up with 'direct air capture', a scheme that extracts the carbon dioxide out of the air in an effort to minimize climate change. The captured carbon can then be turned into a liquid fuel for cars and trucks or released underground.
Supported by Bill Gates, a pilot project operating in Squamish, British Columbia, was extracting one ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere per day. At scale, the first commercial plants are expected to remove one million tons of CO2 per year, the same amount as 40 million trees. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 cars.
Carbon Engineering hopes to have its first generation of plants running by 2021. The plan is to license the technology, so you may yet see a direct air capture machine popping up in a city near you.
3 pollution-reducing tips for city planners
|Make it easier for people to get around without a car by improving public transport, creating out-of-town parking areas and providing travel apps for seamless multimodal travel.|
|Invest in the curb to meet the demands of modern urban life. From e-scooter zones to Uber pick-up points, the curb needs a 21st century makeover to meet rising pollution and congestion levels.|
|Consider new technologies instead of building more roads to meet demand. Direct air capture, for instance, sucks the CO2 out of the air with less disruption to infrastructure. Location technology can help you find the best place to build them.|