Why air pollution is holding back the most disadvantaged kids

Analysis released today by The Guardian and Greenpeace, showing that over a thousand  schools are located near dangerously polluted roads, is a welcome contribution to the growing concern about impacts of air pollution in cities (a map and list of polluted schools can be found here). Traffic pollution is bad for all residents and workers in cities, but there is a social dimension which is still getting patchy acknowledgement: traffic is strangling social mobility.  Its not just that schools are dangerously polluted, but the poorest pupils are the most exposed, and this affects health and academic outcomes.

This result was demonstrated in London, where work done for the Greater London Authority showed that schools with poorer pupils are much more likely to be educated in toxic smog.
Schools with more poor children (measured as receiving free school meals) have higher air pollution exposure (more red bar).  From the GLA report.
This report was was somehow not published (Boris Johnson was mayor at the time) but thankfully The Guardian (again) rescued it for all to see – fair play to The Guardian for its recent focus on pollution in cities.


Generally poorer areas  suffer the worst pollution yet residents pollute the least as car ownership levels are usually lower (Davoudi, 2012).  The most vulnerable – children, the elderly and pregnant women that are most sensitive to the toxins (Whitelegg, 1997) and the effects even start before birth –  prenatal air pollution exposure may be linked to poorer educational outcomes (Sanders, 2011).  Children and older people are more likely to be using the bus so bear less responsibility for the poor air quality.
As well as living alongside polluted streets, poorer groups are more likely to be living in the inner city, which is polluted by vehicles originating in the leafy suburbs.  Better off individuals have some mitigation against the illnesses associated with such as sick pay (Jans, et al., 2014), and wealthy city-centre residents can invest in triple gazing and air filtration systems.

The pollution has further knock on impacts which seem to affect poorer kids more.  The effects of pollution on the brain while driving (Sager, 2016) might explain increased accidents  (Edwards, et al.) observed in more deprived areas (Hippisley-Cox, 2002) (Graham, 2013) but could equally be reduced safe play space (Green, 2011), and simple business and complexity of city life. Another hammer on attainment is traffic noise which correlates with worse school grades (Spengler, 2006).  A challenge with all this work, of course is working out how much correlation is causation: social systems, and especially the interweaving city systems are difficult to isolate.

Big cities tend to have greater inequality and more poorer people. It’s also apparent that larger cities have greater levels of air pollution and congestion, disproportionate for their size.  This “superlinear” behaviour of city scaling has been discussed by Louf (Louf, 2014), Barthelemy (Barthelemy, 2016) and others.  Essentially this is agglomeration economics in reverse.  Economists agree that cities are successful because putting people together tends to produce more activity and innovation than the sum of the individuals and this increases with city size.  However, negative externalities such as air pollution unfortunately seem to go hand in hand with this.  This means cities are obliged to work harder to mitigate these effects by investing in public transport and reducing car trips.

High levels of pollution around poorer schools appears to be completely unfair: wealthier and economically liberated car drivers seem to be dumping their toxins on kids who have no say in the matter.
But this harsh characterisation is overly simplistic.  Most people have little choice but to drive to work as public transport provision is so poor, and we have pursued decentralised and scrawling land use patterns.  This is evident in the Birmingham conurbation, where vast tracts of the Black Country lack rail services (see the closed South Staffordshire line).  The resulting car dependency has a large number of polluted schools even for its size as shown in the Guardian/Greenpeace study.
If air pollution is affecting our children’s health as well as their grades, and is having an impact of social mobility, then we need to tackle the issue urgently.  The silver lining with traffic pollution is that solutions, both from technological and policy perspectives are readily available if the willpower is there.  I’ve listed some of these solutions before and the web is awash with them but three very obvious approaches should be taken now:
1) Electrify the car fleet – immediately at least for urban transport. A critical mass of electric vehicles ensures ubiquitous charging facilities. Electric cars can also help the smart grid by acting as batteries.
2) Introduce road user charging so that the people who are driving and making the mess are paying to deal with the effects.  A persuasive argument would be to hypothecate revenues to fund local mitigations in the neighbourhoods affected by pollution.  These might include improved parks, gym subsidies, triple glazing, household air filters and public transport;
3) Invest in appealing public transport with high levels of network connectivity. A critical and cheap component of this is apps which can pool low emmission buses to be demand responsive. In areas like the Black Country we need to reopen rail networks, with more agile tram-train operation to improve local access.


The London Assembly and Mayor of London are making some really positive noises on this issue.  The assembly have released this paper with road user charging a credible policy, and the mayor will be introducing his toxicity charge from Autumn 2017 (London.gov.uk, 2017).  The good work of the Guardian, the London Assembly, and others will hopefully continue to bring pollution to the mainstream.  Improving perceptions on the impacts of pollution and traffic in general on social mobility and equity should be part of this process.


  • King, K and Healy, S 2013.  Analysing air pollution in London. Aether for the GLA  https://www.scribd.com/doc/312760725/Analysing-Air-Pollution-Exposure-in-London?secret_password=UjnUA1OxDIURIebGARhZ
  • Davoudi, S. et al., 2012. Environmental Justice and the City: Full Report, s.l.: Global urban research unit.
  • Whitelegg, J., 1997. Critical Mass: Transport, Environment and Society in the Twenty-first Century. London: Pluto Press.
  • Sanders, N., 2011. What Doesn’t Kill you Makes you Weaker: Prenatal Pollution Exposure and Educational Outcomes. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  • Jans, J., Johansson, P. & Nilsson, J., 2014. Economic Status, Air Quality, and Child Health: Evidence from Inversion Episodes.
  • Sager, L., 2016. Estimating the effect of air pollution on road safety using atmospheric temperature inversions, s.l.: Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
  • Edwards, P. et al., n.d. Deprivation and Road Safety in London, s.l.: A report to the London Road Safety Unit.
  • Hippisley-Cox, J. e. a., 2002. Cross sectional survey of socioeconomic variations in severity and mechanism of childhood injuries in Trent 1992-97. British Medical Journal, Volume 324, pp. 1132-1138.
  • Graham, D. et al, 2013. Quantifying the effect of area deprivation on child pedestrian casualties by using longitudinal mixed models to adjust for confounding, interference and spatial dependence. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 176(4), pp. 931-950.
  • Green, J. at al., 2011. Child pedestrian casualties and deprivation,. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43(3), pp. 714-723.
  • Spengler, J. e. a., 2006. Noise, Acoustics, Student Learning, and Teacher Health. In: Review and Assessment of the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools: An Interim Report. Washington: The National Academic Press.
  • Barthelemy, M., 2016. A global take on congestion in urban areas. Institut de Physique The´orique Commissariat a l'energie Atomique.
  • Louf, R. a. B. M., 2014. How congestion shapes cities: from mobility patterns to scaling. Institut de Physique Theorique.
  • Wikipedia.  South Staffordshire Line.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Staffordshire_line
  • London.gov.uk press release.  https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-introduces-10-toxicity-charge
  • London Assembly 2017.London Stalling: Reducing traffic congestion in London.  https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/london_stalling_-_reducing_traffic_congestion_in_london.pdf

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