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The UK’s New Road Hierarchy: Short Term Pain or Long Term Gain?

Anika Bhamra, Niamh Sandy, Paul Carpenter, earth sense

28 February 2022/Categories: PTRC News

The UK’s New Road Hierarchy: Short Term Pain or Long Term Gain?

Part of a £338 million package, the Department for Transport (DfT) have released funding to help improve pedestrian and cycle safety across the country. With the changes to in the Highway Code now in operation, updates include a re-prioritising of road user hierarchy, placing pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders at the top. Vehicle drivers are no longer allowed to cut across pedestrians and cyclists at crossings or junctions. Cyclists are also permitted to ride in the centre of roads for help make them more visible to drivers. Such changes should make active and sustainable travel choices easier for the British public. However, there is concern amongst road users that these amendments could also create excess injury and health risks in the short term while everyone adapts to the updates to the Highway Code.

As we Build Back Greener from the pandemic, we want all the hugely positive environmental and mobility changes that happened during a negative period to remain. The result of coronavirus related lockdowns led to better air quality throughout the country – NO2 and PM2.5 concentrations in April 2020 fell by 38.3% and 16.5% respectively when compared to April 2019. 2020 saw the number of miles cycled on British roads rise by nearby 46%, a bigger increase than the previous 20 years combined.

The DfT’s continued investment should help us to make this the norm, but it might be a case of short-term pain for long term gain. There were around 25,000 people either seriously injured or killed on Britain’s roads in the year ending 2021, so to truly allow pedestrians to safely be at the top of the Road Hierarchy, we need the right infrastructure in place. Safe cycling lanes, re-design of junctions with smaller turning radii, improved sight lines and safe and visible informal crossings for pedestrians will all need to be developed– creating temporary noise, dust, and air pollution. This could affect those living nearby as well as those walking or driving past.

Pedestrian and cyclist-centric infrastructure will enable more active and sustainable travel, and consequently smaller volumes of tailpipe emissions coming from polluting vehicles. Lower vehicle related pollution will reduce the exposure of thousands of people living in hotspot areas, as well as drivers and passers-by, therefore reducing their risk of developing various cardiovascular and respiratory health problems. Yet, to fully understand the impact of active travel choices on air pollution, accurate and reliable air quality monitoring hardware that provides real-time, hyper local data that can be easily understood is required, much like EarthSense’s Zephyr® air quality monitor and MyAir® web application.

However, 25,000 people who were injured or killed last year isn’t a number that should be ignored. Whilst road users adapt to the new rules and guidance, an increased risk of injury to pedestrians and cyclists is a very real possibility as those still adhering to the old Code and those following the new rules come together. If pedestrians step out into the road, they could get hit by motorists unaware of the changes. Cyclists moving to the centre of roads could get hit by someone trying to safely pass them. To add to this, a survey of 13,700 people found that 33% of people were unaware of the changes and 4% claiming to have “no intention” of reading them. A lack of awareness coupled with the transitional period could put vulnerable road users at higher risk than before.

In addition, the changes to the Highway Code could have more of a damaging impact on congestion and air quality than pre-pandemic. If more cyclists are travelling in the middle of lanes, or two a breast, then drivers are likely to get stuck behind them as they wait for an appropriate and safe gap to pass. It goes without saying that increased vehicle congestion leads to more frequent stop-start driving with intermittent vehicle speeds being intrinsically linked to higher emissions as a result of sudden acceleration or increased wear on the brakes. Unsafe, harmful emissions can infiltrate communities, leading to increased exposure, exacerbated health problems, hospitalisations and in extreme cases, death.

To fully understand the issue, high resolution air pollution modelling such as EarthSense’s MappAir® model allows us to visualise how traffic related pollution disperses on a global scale right down to street corners. With this near real time information, we can understand how those at locations such as homes, schools, and hospitals are affected by the changes to the highway code. Such data can be used for identifying mitigation strategies to reduce the health implications of traffic build up in the interim.

So, is the new road hierarchy worth the potential increase in hospitalisations, injuries and mortalities to the more vulnerable road-users whilst we wait for the appropriate infrastructure to be fully established? The sum of active travel plus reduced pollution exposure equals a fitter and healthier country, with less demand on our incredible NHS. But we also must weigh up the additional health risks and costs which could put added strain on our health services in the short term. Ultimately, our goal towards Net Zero emissions by 2050 is a target so important - not just for our generation, but many generations to come.


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