PUBLIC health experts have called for a major shift away from cars in towns and cities in favour of infrastructure that encourages more walking, cycling and public transport use.

Medics from the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) - an umbrella body for the UK's three Royal Colleges of Physicians in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow - urge local authorities to design their towns and city centres to prioritise "active travel" and to cut harmful air pollution, which is estimated to cause around 2000 premature deaths in Scotland every year.

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It recommends that more space should be given to segregated cycle lanes and pedestrianised zones to limit the volume of traffic in urban centres, along European models.

This should be coupled with a variety of traffic management measures to directly discourage people from bringing their cars into centres - such as road tolls or parking restrictions - while public transport is given priority.

Buses should increasingly move away from high-polluting diesel fuels to green alternatives, such as electric and hydrogen technology.

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The report is published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which came into force in 1956 in response to the deadly "pea-souper" smogs which choked London in the 1950s.

Professor John Middleton, president of the FPH, said: "Local authorities are responsible for improving the health of their communities. One way they do so is to ensure that town and city centres are designed to reduce the health harms of cars to their residents.

"Measures like street design, traffic management and investing in public transport are good for the local economy too. People who arrive at shops on foot spend the most over the course of a week or a month.

“Everyone in public health, local authorities and across the health and social care sector needs to work together to reduce the health harms of driving. For the sake of our health now and generations to come, we need a change in culture so that walking or cycling becomes part of our daily routine, rather than spending hours sitting in cars."

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Both the UK and Scottish Governments have been criticised for failing to meet EU air pollution targets designed to reduce the public health risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory problems.

A report by the World Health Organisation earlier this year identified 11 urban areas in the UK and Ireland which failed to meet air pollution measures, including Glasgow.

Friends of the Earth Scotland have called for the introduction of Low Emissions Zones, already found in central London and hundreds of other European cities, which charge motorists to bring high-polluting diesel vehicles into city centres.

Emilia Hanna, air pollution campaigner for FoE-Scotland said: "Scotland’s toxic air continues to break national and European safety standards with 32 designated Pollution Zones across the country where levels are deemed to be unsafe. Since Scotland missed its 2010 EU clean air deadline, over 15,000 people have died early from air pollution.

"The dominance of cars on our roads is a direct result of what the Scottish Government is ploughing its transport budget into. This year, it is spending twenty times more money on new road projects than on walking and cycling paths."

Chris Thompson, of pedestrians' champion Living Streets Scotland, said: “It’s important that we build towns and cities around active modes of travel, such as walking. Not merely to benefit the health of those being active but for everybody living, working and going to school in these areas who are regularly having to breath polluted air.”