We are becoming a nation of urban dwellers, living and breathing in our cities. Yet all of us on bicycle, bus or Bentley are inhaling poisonous fumes day in day out and somehow, with all our talent and technology, nothing has been done to remedy this.
According to research released this year by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London, nearly 9,500 people die early each year as a result of long-term exposure to air pollution. That is more than twice as many as previously thought.
The research is the first by any city in the world to attempt to quantify how many people are being harmed by NO2, a gas that is largely created by diesel cars, lorries and buses, and affects lung capacity and growth.
Local and national government might point the finger at one another, but tackling an issue of this magnitude demands cross-sector collaboration, ensuring that commuters are safeguarded and urban centres built in way in which they can thrive.
Day in day out as I travel into the heart of London, I see thousands of our city’s workers descending, en masse, into the depths of the capital’s public transport system. It reminds me of the Charlie Chaplin comedy Modern Times, where it becomes terrifyingly clear just how easy it is for man to become part of an engine, surrendering their free will and turning into cogs in a machine.
We are on a slippery slope to living our own Chaplin-esque farce. Whilst technology has considerably improved urban environments, the UK transport system continues to fail its citizens.
According to the latest National Travel Survey, workers in the capital spend 107 hours every year travelling, making it by far the longest commute in the country. Whilst Londoners endure one of the most hectic commutes the UK offers, similar problems arise in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, and other major cities.
Following an unpleasant commute stuck behind traffic or cramped into underground shuttles, the majority of the UK’s workers then spend their day sedentary staring at keyboards and screens. The World Health Organisation announced this year that at least an hour of physical exercise a day is required to offset the harmful effects of sitting at a desk for eight hours. It coincides with research showing that the risk of dying increases among desk-based workers who sit for eight hours and do low amounts of exercise.
Yet as more of us live in cities, so our commute shortens. The average in London is only four miles. So we must rethink our cities, and design them around walking and cycling, not send people down a hole in the ground and force them to push their way onto overcrowded tubes.
We have no choice but to take action. Investment in the NHS has doubled over the last decade, yet all the metrics continue to slip further backwards. It is hardly surprising that physical and mental health problems are at all-time highs.
Any solution has to involve a variety of actors and business has a key part to play. Our staff spend more time at work that anywhere else. Dynamic workers drive dynamic business. Businesses must take action and improve the environment in which their staff both work and live, in order to improve productivity in the short and long term.
Copenhagen is regularly cited as one of the ‘happiest’ cities in the world, and boasts high levels of worker productivity and contentment. Whilst many factors contribute to this, including cultural tolerance and large green spaces, their bicycle culture is often cited as highly significant. Copenhageners really love living and working in their city because they appreciate how urban design makes their lives easier. How can we replicate this Nordic approach in the UK’s urban environments? And how do we start with this process of cross-sector collaboration?
This is something I will be studying closely as co-chair of a new Vibrant Economy Commission, convened by Grant Thornton. We will be tackling the issues affecting companies, cities, people and communities, to identify how growth can be more equally shared to allow the UK to reach its full potential.
We need to build dynamic cities and communities across the UK, which give both people and businesses the opportunities to fulfil their potential. UK cities are hubs for economic, social and environmental growth, but we must respond to the serious threats that endanger their longevity. The business community must take responsibility and act now, or face the repercussions of an unproductive, unhealthy and unmotivated workforce.
Will Butler-Adams is CEO of Brompton Bicycle and co-chair of the Vibrant Economy Commission