The air we breathe. Pollution and traffic: responsibilities and behaviour

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The latest report from the Osservatorio Scienza e Società di Observa, in collaboration with Tuttoscienzetecnologia of La Stampa, Superquark and Quark

By Giuseppe Pellegrini

As winter approaches, again looming on the public horizon is one of the most feared of urban problems: air pollution. During the winter months of last year, exposure to polluting agents reached emergency levels in many Italian municipalities, forcing numerous mayors to issue ordinances restricting the circulation of traffic.
For a number of years, the quality of the air in Italian cities has been a major concern of public authorities required by European and national regulations to set lower attention thresholds for various polluting substances. In order to curb the harmful effects of emissions by vehicles and domestic and industrial heating systems, various measures have been taken: more accurate measurement of air quality; periodic checks on vehicles (the so-called ‘blue sticker system’); the use of fuels other than petrol and gasoline to power public transport vehicles; the replacement of obsolete heating systems; and the introduction of restricted traffic zones. Despite these measures, however, the hoped-for results have not been achieved, and air quality in some municipalities has deteriorated to such an extent that further restrictions have had to be introduced: for example, the circulation of even and odd number-plated vehicles on alternate days, and the involvement of the general public in ‘car-less Sundays’ (‘domeniche a piedi’). For all these reasons, the air quality issue is well-known to Italians, who are now familiar with such terms as PM10, microparticles, particulates, and so on.
The most recent survey carried out by Observa’sScience and Society Observatory yields detailed information on the opinions of Italians concerning air pollution and its causes. The survey also examined the issues of individual and institutional responsibility, while identifying the kinds of behaviour that Italians deem most suitable to deal with the problem.
Italians believe that road traffic is the main cause of urban pollution. This finding is of especial importance considering that fully six Italians out of every ten regard exhaust fumes as mainly responsible for urban decay – in contrast to emissions by factories and central heating systems, which they consider to be only marginal causes of pollution (24% and 10%). This opinion corresponds with the conclusions of numerous studies that road traffic is the main cause of pollution and of microdust levels in excess of statutory limits. These studies have emphasised the need for policies to reduce the use of private transport and replace it with alternatives: electricity-powered vehicles, collective taxis, alternative fuels, and bicycle lanes.
But what do Italians believe are the kinds of behaviour best suited to abating pollution? At individual level, the interviewees were most willing to use public transport and to change their habits regarding private transport (52.7%), while they were less willing to purchase low-emission vehicles (28.9%). In both cases, these options were preferred by older interviewees, and especially by women as regards the use of public transport. Lower-educated interviewees expressed the least willingness to pay for research aimed at reducing pollution (9.6%).
The findings of the survey show that Italians want the problem of traffic pollution to be addressed ‘systemically’ through decisive government action in two directions: subsidising public transport, and encouraging the production of less polluting vehicles (31.2% and 30%). Italians also believe that the government should support research on pollution reduction (20%) and, to a lesser extent, encourage municipalities to introduce traffic reduction measures (13.2%). They therefore want research to be financed indirectly via the government rather than being directly paid for by the public.
Finally, the survey’s finding as regards the role of local authorities was once again that Italians regard subsidising public transport as the best possible anti-pollution measure. Half of the interviewees – especially older and less educated ones – deemed this to be the optimal solution, while they gave little endorsement for other, more restrictive, initiatives: the circulation on alternate days of cars with odd and even number plates (19.1%) or a total ban on private car use when necessary (14.8%). More drastic measures like tolls on car entry to city centres were judged positively by only a small minority of interviewees (7.4%) – a finding indicative that Italians are suspicious of levies exacted by the public authorities.

In general, the survey has highlighted that the quality of Italy’s urban environment is the cause of considerable public disquiet. Italians emphasise the responsibilities of central and local government authorities. They must encourage the use of public transport and provide financial incentives to the car industry so that it increases the production of vehicles powered by alternative fuels. The survey has also highlighted the significant extent to which Italian citizens accept personal responsibility for air pollution. If this awareness is appropriately supported, the quality of the air in Italian cities will improve. Action is required on several fronts, but it should optimize alternative solutions and virtuous behaviour, not increase sanctions and restrictive measures.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 23rd of november, 2005.

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1029 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.