A TV documentary which filmed a one-off experiment to cut high pollution levels in Kings Heath High Street is to be screened on BBC2.
Fighting For Air filmed a one-day initiative to cut air pollution levels in the suburb at the beginning of December.
The programme is presented by Dr Xand van Tulleken whose TV CV includes series like Trust Me I’m A Doctor.
Dr van Tulleken is joined by local residents to see if they can cut pollution levels in just 24 hours.
The idea is to illustrate that positive action can deliver a cleaner-air reward compared with doing nothing.
“I want to build towards an experiment where on one big day we can try to make a really noticeable difference to their air quality on the high street,” says Dr Van Tulleken.
“If we can do that we can show Birmingham, the whole of the UK and maybe even the whole of the world that this is possible to do.”
The locals taking part include a mixture of enthusiasts and sceptics.
Measures to improve the air quality included a parking bay suspension notice on Kings Heath High Street from Birmingham City Council, which ran from 8pm on Thursday, November 30 through to 11pm on Friday, December 1.
At the end of the day, pollution levels were measured to see if there was any difference in a country where it is said that air pollution causes 50,000 premature deaths every year.
Dr van Tulleken, who has a masters degree in public health, also becomes a case study in his own experiment.
He first detoxes by wearing a military-grade chemical warfare suit to reduce the amount of pollution in his own body, then stands out in a street breathing in polluted air again.
Dr van Tulleken is told that going into a polluted environment raises his blood pressure, makes his arteries stiffer and his blood stickier.
He also discovers you can be breathing in a lot of polllution inside your car if you don't set the air circulation controls properly.
After issuing leaflets to rally local support, the production team were joined by local volunteers willing to see if they could make a difference to pollution levels.
+ Fighting For Air will be screened at 9pm on BBC2 on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.
The measures that were taken
The volunteers are given permission to suspend local on-street parking to try to prevent traffic slowing down or stopping as often.
Six foot tall Portuguese laurel trees in planters were then dragged into the road to ensure that the on-street parking spaces could not be claimed.
The programme also features local Coun Lisa Trickett (Labour, Moseley and Kings Heath) talking by telephone to a highways engineer called “Kevin in the bunker” who synchronises the “green wave” traffic lights.
To keep people out of their cars, 200 free bus tickets were issued for the No 50 service, which transports 20,000 passengers per day.
And children at the nearby St Dunstan’s Catholic Primary School were encouraged to ask their parents to walk them to school instead of driving.
Although the volume of traffic did not drop on the day according to the volunteers’ own measurements, two scientists said they had recorded a significant reduction of NOx (nitrogen oxides) which are some of the main toxins in pollution along with tiny soot particles known as particulate matter (PM).
One of the biggest drops in pollution was on the road outside St Dunstan’s School where there was less queuing traffic than normal.
Dr Xand tells his volunteers: “I think it’s really extraordinary about what you’ve done.”
The programme concludes by saying that a 10% reduction of air pollution would result in more than 500 schools becoming compliant. A 20% reduction in air pollution would see ore than 750 schools becoming compliant.
What does Dr Xand van Tulleken say?
“The air quality around here is pretty atrocious.
“I want to see if one community can make a difference in a small suburb with a big traffic problem.
“I am breathing in a cocktail of nasty substances coming out of the exhausts.”
He tells his group of volunteers: “Personally I feel excited and apprehensive...”
Dr van Tulleken adds: “I am blown away by the ambition of everyone in the room.”
During the programme he says he is most worried by diesel trucks and lorries – and that 11m diesel vehicles now account for “40 per cent of everything on the road.”
While being driven around the local area by local cafe owner James Connolly in a car which measures the exact nature of exhaust gases, Dr Xand says that “standard acceleration can created 10x more emissions.”
Going every speed bump generates a “belch of NOx”.
But when James drive more smoothly, he “dumped about 50 per cent less NOx.”
Dr Van Tulleken says one of his concerns about the experiment is that if the roads become clearer, sat navs might re-route more traffic down the High Street – so he attempts to counterbalance that by telling one app there is congestion in the area when there isn’t.
“One of the things I’m going to do to try to prevent people driving their cars along the High Street which is a little bit naughty but I guess I don’t feel too bad about it,” he says.
“I am using one of the traffic navigation apps to flag up that the traffic is worse than it actually is. I’m going to say that it’s at a standstill and add a comment that this is a nightmare day for traffic here.
“Other users will see that and hopefully the app will route them somewhere else.
“Of course, this could lead to congestion elsewhere as people try to get around my blockage.
“But this will make the point that less traffic will reduce the pollution. Fingers crossed.”
Who takes part?
James Connolly - owner of Gorilla Coffee Cafe.
He’s a pragmatist but wants to see change. His café is on the same road as a primary school and worries about the effects of gridlock at drop off and pick up.
“As a business owner I’m excited about how changes in air pollution can affect the quality of life for my customers and that really excites me," says James.
“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to make a real sea change in people’s habits.
“We’ve been able to arm people with information about an unseen danger.”
Stan Hems - owner of Johnstan’s Butchers
A natural sceptic. The local butcher and a major part of the community.
“Kings Heath is a great place to live,” he says.
“If you start messing about with Kings Heath, businesses will close. I’ve worked on the high street all my life. You can destroy a neighbourhood.”
Stan says the pollution “has got a lot better” because in years gone by... “we’d have to clean this counter four or five times a day.”
He is also in favour of retaining on-street parking spaces so that people can quickly pop into the local shops.
“The parking isn’t there for hours,” he says.
“Some people are there for two or three minutes just while they pop into the Post Office.
Kate Goodall - business manager
Also a mother to two children attending local schools.
Kate doesn’t have a car and is an advocate for public transport, especially buses.
Cat Watton - architect
Architect, lecturer, and cycle activist, Cat travels with Dr van Tulleken see what effect the removal of parking bays has had on Walthamstow Village.
“In my own utopia, I would block all cars,” she says.
Tom Tierney - local grandfather
Tom worries particularly about the effects of pollution on his granddaughter’s lungs.
Charged with completing a traffic count, he sees only 16 cyclists in two hours – and most cars only have one person in them.
Sara Aboutorabi - urban planner
The local resident has worked on urban planning in China with a green focus.
“To tackle the pollution we need to change people’s habits,” she admits.
“I’m guilty of that. Cars are just jammed on the High Street.”