According to Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst, there has been little improvement in air pollution since the UK signed up to the international air quality standards in 1995.
And they say that their study has identified the failure of successive transport planners to take the issue seriously enough as the main cause of this.
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The academics, from the University of the West of England, said that current figures estimate that more than 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution in the UK.
Yet despite this, they said that planners have been seen to prioritise road accidents as the central problem facing drivers and other road users.
Professor Pankhurst said that air pollution was the result of UK transport planners failing to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions.
He added that responsibility for air pollution is shared between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport.
But he went on to say that even so, officials have tended to simply monitor the problem and prioritise safety and economic growth instead of searching for a solution.
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 Pankhurst and Dr Chatterton are now calling for poor air quality to be promoted as a public health issue.
Dr Chatterton said that air pollution has reached the status of an “epidemic”, with effects that are more significant than road collisions, though less obvious.
He said: “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.