Leeds after lockdown: How more cycle routes can reduce air pollution levels

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Since the start of Lockdown seven weeks ago, UK air pollution levels have dropped and bicycle sales have soared as transport and industry have been grounded to a halt amidst growing public fears of contracting the virus.

Air quality improvements have been reported globally from India to China as a result of Lockdown measures being enforced since March. An image of Dehli circulated across social media weeks ago showing the dramatic difference of Lockdown on the cities air quality index.

In the UK, the cycling industry has boomed and now there are expectations for cities to adapt by creating more pedestrian and cycle routes. Indeed, cycle-to-work schemes have led to a 200% increase in bicycle orders from people working for emergency services and Halfords shares have soared by 23%.

Equally, Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) pollution has dropped significantly across major UK cities. The Gryphon wanted to discover how the measures had affected Leeds, specifically the areas situated around the University campus.

An Environmental Information request from Leeds City Council revealed a significant drop in the average monthly concentrations of NO2 since Lockdown was enforced.

The data comes from two monitoring stations located at the junction of Otley Road and St Michaels Road and also at the junction of Woodhouse Lane and Northern Terrace. The stations monitor concentrations of Nitrogen Dioxide which is one of the main pollutants of concern from vehicle emissions.

Source: Leeds City Council/Defra

Source: Leeds City Council/Defra

The unit µg/m3 represents the concentration of NO2 in micrograms per cubic metre air.

The data revealed a staggering 52% drop in NO2 concentrations in and around one of Leeds busiest roads (Otley Road and St Michaels Road) and a decrease of 36% on the junction of Woodhouse Lane and Northern Terrace.

Professor Martyn Chipperfield who specialises in Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Leeds said that regarding NO2 concentrations: “the air in April 2020 was certainly ‘cleaner’ than in the earlier months”.

He went on to explain that while “NO2 levels are affected by traffic emissions and other combustion sources (likely to be mainly traffic in Leeds), the levels are also affected by meteorology (winds, clouds), and there can be a natural decrease in emissions from winter into spring (less energy use) and the timing of Easter holidays.”

Although it is true that less traffic on the roads has played a significant part in the reduction of air pollution across Leeds and it is time for the council to consider how Leeds will adapt to be more climate-friendly.

The BBC reported that research from The Cycling UK Leeds looked at “English cities with a high cycling potential and has identified 99.2 miles of streets and roads” across all major UK cities which have the capacity to benefit from “temporary walking and cycling infrastructure.”

The concern is that the rise and fall of NO2 are entirely dependent on emissions which are bound to increase when people start moving again and when weather changes occur.

Maddy Sherratt

Image: Wikimedia Commons.