Oxford city centre saw a historic fall in air pollution as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, and Oxford City Council is considering measures to maintain this reduction even as the lockdown eases.
Actual nitrogen dioxide levels were down 59% compared to no-lockdown models, experts from Ricardo Energy and Environment found. The reduction was the highest among 29 sites surveyed across the UK, including in London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham.
The council is exploring initiatives including reallocating road space for walking and cycling, as well as pedestrianising Broad Street by repurposing parking bays for street traders and market stalls. It is also considering promoting an outdoor café culture, with temporary seating outside food premises to maintain capacity while facilitating social distancing. The council hopes to protect public health and potentially see an increase in cycle and foot traffic through the coronavirus recovery and beyond.
“Why should we return to pollution-spewing traffic that harms human health when we know the pandemic is preying on people with underlying health conditions?” asked Cllr Tom Hayes, cabinet member for Zero Carbon Oxford.
Oxford joins cities around the world, including Milan, Manchester, and Auckland, in pursuing experimental measures to ensure safety as lockdowns are relaxed.
“The rapid decline in pollution within Oxford shows how powerful individual action can be when taken collectively,” the Oxford Climate Society told The Oxford Student. “These behavioural changes, must of course be balanced with other factors such as mental and physical health, but coming out of this lockdown presents us an opportunity to learn from this and create a cleaner Oxford that is better for both our health and the climate.”
The measures under consideration will be supported by Connecting Oxford and the Oxford Zero Emission Zone, sustainable transport projects run jointly with the Oxfordshire County Council. However, the launch of the zone has been postponed by six months until summer 2021 due to the pandemic.
The study conducted by Ricardo Energy and Environment found Oxford leading in nitrogen dioxide reduction at 59%, with Glasgow, Leeds, and York following closely at 54-55%. The average fall in all 29 sites monitored was 34%.
There is no safe level of air pollution. New figures from the European Heart Journal suggest emissions cause 64,000 deaths annually in the UK.
“This is a once in a generation opportunity to transform our city centre towards a cleaner and more pedestrian friendly environment whilst allowing us to support businesses and the local economy to return to operation,” says Cllr Alex Hollingsworth, cabinet member for planning and sustainable transport.
The Oxford Climate Society told The Oxford Student: “The rapid decline in pollution within Oxford shows how powerful individual action can be when taken collectively. These behavioural changes, must of course be balanced with other factors such as mental and physical health, but coming out of this lockdown presents us an opportunity to learn from this and create a cleaner Oxford that is both better for both our health and the climate”
Featured image: Broad Street, courtesy of Billy Wilson via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
This article was amended on 24/05/20 to add a comment from The Oxford Climate Society