There has been little improvement in air quality over the last 20 years as transport planners concentrate on preventing road deaths, according to a new study.
Two university academics set out to try and understand why there has been little improvement in air pollution concentrations from road transport since the UK signed up to international air quality standards in 1995, as part of the Environment Act.
Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst, from the Bristol-based University of the West of England, said their work concluded that UK transport planners are not taking the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account.
They said that current figures estimate that over 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution in the UK yet transport planners focus on reducing road accidents.
"Air pollution is perhaps the grossest manifestation of a general failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account," said Professor Parkhurst
"Currently air pollution is a shared priority between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport but shared priority does not mean equal priority.
"Environmental managers only identify and monitor the problems.
"Insufficient relevant priority has been given within the sector responsible for most relevant emissions - transport policy and planning - which has instead prioritised safety and economic growth."
The two academics also claimed there was limited regulatory and financial support for alternative modes of transport and for local authorities seeking to introduce air improvement measures such as 'low emissions zones'.
They also said there was a strong social equity issue, with households in poorer areas tending to be exposed to much higher levels of air pollution, while contributing much less to the problem, principally through driving less.
Prof Parkhurst and Dr Chatterton also called for poor air quality to be promoted as a public health issue.
"Air pollution-related morbidity and mortality are at 'epidemic' levels and, although less obvious, are more significant than road transport collisions as a cause of death and injury," Dr Chatterton said.
"Politicians at local and national levels must treat poor air quality as a public health priority, placing clear emphasis on the severity of the problem and the limitations of technological fixes.
"Existing approaches that focus on individual, voluntary, behaviour change and technological innovations are not sufficient to tackle poor air quality.
"There needs to be a strong political and societal commitment to protecting public health, particularly the health of children, whose life chances can be seriously compromised by exposure to air pollution."
The findings are due to be presented at Royal Geographical Society annual international conference in London on Wednesday.
A government spokesman said: "The Government is firmly committed to improving the UK's air quality and cutting harmful emissions. That's why we have committed more than £2 billion to greener transport schemes since 2011 and set out a national plan to tackle pollution in our towns and cities.
"We have some of the safest roads in the world and are committed to making sure that record continues."