Changing behaviour: cleaner cars on the roads

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Bringing in more robust targets to remove petrol and diesel cars from Britain’s roads amid pleas for tougher action to improve air quality, although a welcome initiative, is just one of the ways to address the dangerous levels of air pollution affecting our towns and cities.

In that context, understanding consumer behaviour to road travel is increasingly important.

Earlier this year, a major new report by Members of Parliament – the first delivered by a joint audit committee across the areas of transport, environment and health – called for a new Clean Air Act that would be more ambitious when it comes to tackling poor air quality. It recommends “to place the protection of public health and the environment, rather than technical compliance or political convenience, at the centre of air quality policy.”

With estimates showing that air pollution contributes to 40,000 early deaths each year and costs the UK £20 billion annually, according to the Environmental Audit Committee, those on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care and Transport Committees are also demanding a faster phase-out of petrol and diesel cars.

Currently scheduled for 2040, the MPs believe the ban should be brought forward, in line with India’s pledge last year that all new vehicles to be sold by 2030 will be powered by electricity.

After our extensive experience of working with the government on ways to improve air quality, Bureau Veritas believes that addressing the air pollution plight is not just about regulation but also requires a greater understanding of consumer attitudes to low polluting vehicles.

We need to rapidly change the British public’s perception of alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles

The poor level of air quality in the UK, particularly in urban areas, is certainly a massive concern to population health and wellbeing. To tackle the problem head on, the move away from diesel and petrol vehicles must be accelerated.

However, this requires active engagement between behavioural scientists and air quality experts in order to rapidly change the British public’s perception of alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles.

Added to this, a complete overhaul of public transport and associated infrastructure for adoption of electric vehicles; for example, charging points and battery storage, should be prioritised to overcome the significant barriers to a quicker adoption of low polluting vehicles and private vehicle alternatives.

At present, vehicle ownership is still largely driven by socio-economic factors related to household incomes and reflects our status in society. Unless scrappage schemes remove older, more polluting vehicles, their continued use remains an attractive proposition for low income households.

On top of this, with the choice of vehicle also determined by performance and access to charging points, there also needs to be adequate infrastructure in place first to support alternatively-fuelled options; be it electric, liquid nitrogen or emerging hydrogen models.

This, of course, is just one area of concern. Local transport networks and pricing remain inefficient and unless an overall authority has control and management of transport modes similar to the Transport for London model, passengers will continue to find it difficult to move around using multiple payments across buses,
trains and trams.

Crucially, while the choice for better air quality is an obvious one, the plan for delivery is inherently complex and requires a greater understanding of how best we can influence consumers to switch faster to low polluting transport such as electric cars or to a greater use of public transport in order to achieve the level of air quality we all deserve.

Committees' call for a new Clean Air Act available here 

Dr Richard Maggs is consulting group manager on air quality at Bureau Veritas


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