Paul Cosford, the medical director of Public Health England, told the Times it should be socially unacceptable to leave a car running near school gates.
The comments came as PHE published a series of recommendations on how the government can improve air quality.
PHE said 28,000 to 36,000 deaths a year in the UK could be attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution.
It is also calling for congestion charges to be imposed in cities across the UK.
It describes air pollution as the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK and says there is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma.
In its review, it recommends:
- Redesigning cities so people aren't so close to highly polluting roads by, for example, designing wider streets or using hedges to screen against pollutants
- Investing more in clean public transport as well as foot and cycle paths
- Encouraging uptake of low emission vehicles by setting more ambitious targets for installing electric car charging points
- Discouraging highly polluting vehicles from entering populated areas with incentives such as low emission or clean air zones
Prof Cosford said: "Transport and urban planners will need to work together with others involved in air pollution to ensure that new initiatives have a positive impact.
"Decision makers should carefully design policies to make sure that the poorest in society are protected against the financial implications of new schemes."
PHE said that national government policy could support these local actions - for example, they could allow controls on industrial emissions in populated areas to take account of health impacts.