By Faranak Bakhtiari

World Car-Free Day: costly cars, cheap fuel to blame for air pollution 

September 22, 2019

TEHRAN – Air pollution incurs financial loss of about 140 million rials (nearly $3,300) for each family in Iran annually, however both high-priced vehicles and low-cost fuel are to blame for the air pollution severely haunting big cities of the country, said Behzad Ashjaei, secretary of the technical inspection committee of the Department of Environment.

According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die from air pollution every year, making it the greatest environmental threat to health today. Urban air pollution in particular is increasing by 8 percent every five years, and 95 percent of cities worldwide do not meet World Health Organization’s guidelines. 

An international movement to curb air pollution

World Car-Free Day is an international event celebrated every September 22 in which people are encouraged to use public or non-motorized transport to get around.  
It has come a long way since its beginnings in 1956, when Dutch and Belgians abandoned their cars every Sunday to curb the effects of the Suez Crisis.

This Sunday, skyrocketing oil prices aren’t the reason why 2,500 cities worldwide are participating in the “car-free day” initiative – it’s the alarmingly high levels of NO2 and CO2 in the atmosphere.

Vehicles are a significant source of pollution, and transport is the fastest-growing source of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions, the largest contributor to climate change. 

The results of going car free for one day are clear: the first “journée sans voiture” (day without a car), which took place in Paris in 2015, reduced exhaust emissions by 40 percent.

Last year in London, diverting traffic away from the marathon route caused local air pollution levels to drop by as much as 89 percent.

In this regard, UN Environment Program’s “Share the Road” program supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to invest in infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles. 

What really caused Tehraners to breathe foul air?

Since the beginning of the current Iranian calendar year (March 21), Tehran air quality has been unhealthy for sensitive groups for 24 days due to high rate of ozone emissions, while one day reported to be unhealthy for all the residents, according to the Tehran Air Quality Control Company.

Traffic congestion and cars can contribute to ozone raise, as toxic emissions of oxides of nitrogen is released by diesel cars during fuel combustion in an engine.

To reduce pollution in the cities, cleaner transport fleets and less private cars can have immediate and long-term benefits, Behzad Ashjaei told ISNA on Sunday.

Although pollution standards in the world have become stricter compared to that of 20 years ago, people are still encouraged to stop using private cars, he said, adding, the reason is also clear, fewer cars, less air pollution, so the culture of using private cars should be promoted. 

One concept should fit into the community that "owning a car does not mean using it every day", which is not formed by itself but the policy makers should think about it, he added.

Pointing out that everywhere in the world cars are cheap while using them are costly, Ashjaei said factors such as fuel prices, tolls, taxes, etc. have made people avoid using their cars as much as possible.

However, in Iran it is exactly the opposite; the car is very expensive but very inexpensive to use and as a result the car owner would like to use a car bought at a high cost every day, he noted.

“That is why traffic congestion and air pollution haunted our cities today; some say that Tehran does not have the capacity for so many cars, but it is more accurate to say that Tehran does not have the capacity to use so many cars daily.”

“Iran ranked 71st in the world in terms of per capita vehicle,” he said, highlighting, in Tehran alone there are four cars per person.

“Vehicles per person in the world metropolises such as Tokyo, Los Angles and Vienna are even twice Tehran, but is air pollution haunting them? Definitely not,” Ashjaei stressed.
Of course, urban structure is also effective in the cities' air quality, but more important is the culture of using private cars, which has so far not been seriously reformed in Iran, he added.

According to Ashjaei, based on a report by the World Bank published in April 2018, air pollution in Tehran incurs annual loss of $2.6 million and over 4,000 premature deaths from exposure to fine particles ambient concentrations.

“In other words, each Iranian family burdens an annual loss of 140 million rials (nearly $3,300) caused by air pollution. If they take public fleet to work and take care of their car catalysts, they will pay less; so it is much better to play our part in reducing air pollution.”

“Most cities in the country, especially Tehran, are experiencing a shortage of public fleets, so we should not neglect infrastructure alongside acculturalization to reduce the use of personal cars,” he emphasized. 

The current capacity of public transport fleet is not responsive to the current customers, let alone private car owners, so it requires serious attention and investment, he explained.
Implying that emissions do not just depend on automotive technology and many factors are involved, he stated that fuel quality, local conditions, altitude, driving pattern, topographical condition of the city all affect the amount of emission a car is producing.

“The DOE is responsible for controlling vehicles producing one out of 85 emissions, and we tried our best to monitor the emitting vehicles and reduce air pollution; but the main factor which can fully eradicate it is car manufacturers,” he highlighted.

Efforts to reduce use of personal cars

‘Car-free Tuesdays’ campaign kicked off in 2016 by NGOs aiming to decrease the number of private cars in cities, hence mitigate air pollution, but lost momentum after almost a year probably because of the inefficient infrastructure in the country.

Such movements towards cleaner transport options entail appropriate infrastructure such as bike lanes to ensure safety improvements and higher ridership numbers, as well as efficient, low emission public transport.

However, the campaign has resumed by the Tehran mayor over the past 10 months.

How to save the cities?

Although raising awareness about vehicles emissions can make the citizens to use transportation services in a year; there must be effective solutions to a clean, efficient mobility ecosystem such as reducing traffic congestion, producing green vehicles, getting electric cars on the roads. 

However, cities also must improve infrastructure to be suitable for bicycle riders and pedestrians, while holding electric charging stations or other facilities for the use of electric vehicles.

Public transport systems should run cheaper and safer to become a viable alternative to the car in urban areas; cities must be analyzed to offer different transportation as well as reducing waiting times for the passengers. 

Roads are the other factor can improve traffic jam, as long as it offers alternative routes for drivers.

Increasing parking spaces all over the cities can also reduce the traffic.

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