“Air pollution is bad for our brains, as well as our lungs”: so why aren’t we angrier?

Some city or another. Not sure which. Image: Getty.

Getting people excited about air quality is difficult. The villain of the piece is invisible, risk accumulates very gradually with each breath we take, and when its pernicious effects do eventually emerge, they show up only indirectly in specific medical conditions. Nobody has ever been diagnosed with a bad case of air pollution.

Netflix recently had a go at dramatising the issue in their high-budget royal drama The Crown. It follows the story of Winston Churchill’s secretary, Venetia Scott, whose flatmate becomes severely ill as a result of breathing in too much filthy air during the Great Smog of 1952. Air pollution in those days was more visible. and we watch panicked Londoners trying to block up gaps in their windows to keep the deadly soot out of their houses and away from their coughing children.

Venetia rushes her friend to the local hospital and leaves her with a friendly doctor. But just as the viewer relaxes, safe in the knowledge that her flatmate is in good hands, Venetia steps out onto the street outside the hospital and is hit by a bus emerging suddenly from the dense smog. She is a metaphor for the approximately 12,000 Londoners killed by foul air that year. Churchill is dismayed and, following a public outcry, sets in train the work to introduce the Clean Air Act of 1956.

In reality, things were quite different. Historical accounts suggest that there was not a great outcry, so habituated were Londoners to the regular smogs. For many, the poor air quality aggravated underlying medical conditions, or caused chronic illness, rather than instant death.

That is why the Netflix writers needed the bus incident to underscore the danger of it all: at the time, most people were unconvinced by the link between smog and bad health. Indeed the spike in the death rate was explained away by an official report as the result of a coincidental outbreak of flu. Churchill did not have a secretary killed by the smog, and he did not regulate emissions as a result. When the air cleared after four days, the capital largely went back to business as usual.

In some ways, things are different today. Partly through studying extreme episodes such as the Great Smog, we are now under no illusions about the health risks of bad air. Careful scientific estimates suggests that at least 52,000 life years were lost due to air pollution in London in 2010 alone.

What hasn’t changed since 1952 is that the public continue to put up with dangerously high levels of air pollution, year after year. Despite some high profile public campaigns, there is no real outcry. And given that reforms to improve air quality – such as banning more of the dirtiest vehicles, or increasing road charging – will create losers as well as winners, an outcry is what is required.


Another episode from history shows that air pollution may be even worse for us than previously thought. In the early 1980s, there was a recession in the US which had a particularly severe effect on industry, causing many factories to either cut production or shut down altogether. It was the opposite of the Great Smog: a big, temporary reduction in air pollution in industrial areas.

Economists interested in child cognitive development have used this as a natural experiment. They showed that children lucky enough to be born during the recession, when the air was cleaner, had better exam results aged 16 than those born when the factories were emitting at full tilt. Air pollution is bad for our brains as well as our lungs, even while we are still in the womb.

In one sense, this makes the air quality prognosis even bleaker – but it may also help turn up pressure on policymakers. The writers of The Crown chose to show shots of children coughing and spluttering because there is something particularly emotive about seeing the young suffering from the actions of the old. GPs will tell you that a good time to get women to stop smoking is when they are pregnant, because the thought of harming their unborn child is more powerful than the thought of harming themselves.

We can only hope that knowing filthy air is damaging the brains of young Londoners will have the same effect. A Mumsnet campaign to clean up our air would be a force to be reckoned with.

Sam Sims is a Centre for London associate and a research fellow at Education Datalab. The Centre for London is convening an independent, expert commission to examine how London can tackle problems of congestion, pollution and safety. Find out more here.

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North central Melbourne is becoming a test bed for smart, integrated transport

A rainy Melbourne in 2014. Image: Getty.

Integrated transport has long been the holy grail of transport engineering. Now, a project set up north of Melbourne’s downtown aims to make it a reality.

Led by the School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, the project will create a living laboratory for developing a highly integrated, smart, multimodal transport system. The goals are to make travel more efficient, safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

Integrated transport aims to combine various modes of travel to provide seamless door-to-door services. Reduced delays, increased safety and better health can all be achieved by sharing information between users, operators and network managers. This will optimise mobility and minimise costs for travellers.

The National Connected Multimodal Transport Test Bed includes arterial roads and local streets in an area of 4.5 square kilometres in Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood.

Bounded by Alexandra Parade and Victoria, Hoddle and Lygon streets, this busy inner-suburban area is a perfect location to test a new generation of connected transport systems. Our growing cities will need these systems to manage their increasing traffic.

How will the test bed work?

The test bed covers all modes of transport. Since April, it has been collecting data on vehicles, cyclists, public transport, pedestrians and traffic infrastructure, such as signals and parking. The area will be equipped with advanced sensors (for measuring emissions and noise levels) and communications infrastructure (such as wireless devices on vehicles and signals).

The test bed will collect data on all aspects of transport in the inner-suburban area covered by the project. Image: author provided.

The aim is to use all this data to allow the transport system to be more responsive to disruption and more user-focused.

This is a unique opportunity for key stakeholders to work together to build a range of core technologies for collecting, integrating and processing data. This data will be used to develop advanced information-based transport services.

The project has attracted strong support from government, industry and operators.

Government will benefit by having access to information on how an integrated transport system works. This can be used to develop policies and create business models, systems and technologies for integrated mobility options.

The test bed allows industry to create and test globally relevant solutions and products. Academics and research students at the University of Melbourne are working on cutting-edge experimental studies in collaboration with leading multinationals.

This will accelerate the deployment of this technology in the real world. It also creates enormous opportunities for participation in industry up-skilling, training and education.

What are the likely benefits?

Urban transport systems need to become more adaptable and better integrated to enhance mobility. Current systems have long suffered from being disjointed and mode-centric. They are also highly vulnerable to disruption. Public transport terminals can fail to provide seamless transfers and co-ordination between modes.

This project can help transport to break out of the traditional barriers between services. The knowledge gained can be used to provide users with an integrated and intelligent transport system.

It has been difficult, however, to trial new technologies in urban transport without strong involvement from key stakeholders. An environment and platform where travellers can experience the benefits in a real-world setting is needed. The test bed enables technologies to be adapted so vehicles and infrastructure can be more responsive to real-time demand and operational conditions.


Rapid advancements in sensing and communication technologies allow for a new generation of solutions to be developed. However, artificial environments and computer simulation models lack the realism to ensure new transport technologies can be properly designed and evaluated. The living lab provides this.

The test bed will allow governments and transport operators to share data using a common information platform. People and vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and the transport infrastructure to allow the whole system to operate more intelligently. The new active transport systems will lead to safety and health benefits.

The test bed allows impacts on safety in a connected environment to be investigated. Interactions between active transport modes such as walking and cycling with connected or autonomous vehicles can be examined to ensure safety is enhanced in complex urban environments. Researchers will study the effects of warning systems such as red light violation, pedestrian movements near crossings, and bus stops.

Low-carbon mobility solutions will also be evaluated to improve sustainability and cut transport emissions.

Environmental sensors combined with traffic-measurement devices will help researchers understand the effects of various types of vehicles and congestion levels. This includes the impacts of emerging disruptive technologies such as autonomous, on-demand, shared mobility systems.

A range of indoor and outdoor sensor networks, such as Wi-Fi, will be used to trial integrated public transport services at stations and terminals. The goal is to ensure seamless transfers between modes and optimised transit operations.The Conversation

Majid Sarvi is chair in transport engineering and the professor in transport for smart cities; Gary Liddle an enterprise professor, transport; and Russell G. Thompson, an associate professor in transport engineering at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.