Paving the way for better health

Paving the way for better health
Photo by Kevin Schmid / Unsplash

In 2007, The Swedish Road Administration published a report assessing the full health impact of road transport on one of Europe's least polluted countries using a methodology that brought together a range of data. Its findings were clear - motor vehicles were bad for peoples' health, and for a variety of reasons not always appreciated.

The report found that due to the combined effects of road traffic air pollutants, noise and physical inactivity:

road transport forms the fifth largest health risk in Sweden after high blood pressure, use of tobacco, high cholesterol and high levels of BMI (Body Mass Index, a measurement of overweight).


However it must be observed that high blood pressure and high BMI levels may be the result of road transport according to our analysis, so the actual count as concerns road transport may be much higher.

The report also highlighted the occurrence of deaths caused by road accidents and environmental damage. It estimated that every year on average 1,237 deaths may occur among people affected by climate change, which is 2.5 times as many fatalities as will occur in road traffic accidents in Sweden.

A 2014 World Bank report found that globally:

Motorized road transport imposes a large burden on population health, resulting in more than 1.5 million deaths and 79.6 million healthy years of life lost annually. Deaths from road transport exceed those from HIV, tuberculosis, or malaria. Injuries and pollution from vehicles contribute to six of the top 10 causes of death globally.

These reports illustrate the weight of evidence counting the health costs generated by motorised transport and borne by communities around the world. These costs continue to rise despite new technologies reducing individual vehicle emissions and improving safety. The growing numbers of vehicles and roads offset any efforts to rein in their negative impact.

Turning the tide of powerful economic forces and decades of massive investment in road infrastructure and automobiles is no easy task. Yet there are some basic ways to to do just this at least on a local level. One such measure is to create and expand pedestrian-only areas throughout a city.

The absence of motor vehicles in pedestrianised areas generally provides a cleaner, safer and less noisy environment. Anyone living, working and regularly spending time in these spaces will almost certainly benefit from better health and wellbeing as well as being less likely to be involved in a road accident.

They may also benefit from enjoying more physical and social activity in these areas. Well designed, car-free spaces encourage walking, exercise and social activity. All of which have been identified by health authorities as vital for staying fit and healthy at a time when inactivity is a major cause of common health conditions.

A more subtle benefit is the improved well-being provided by a reduction in car travel as a result of pedestrianisation. Higher levels of stress and anxiety associated with driving may be lowered if car journeys are reduced or replaced by walking in pedestrian areas.

These potential health benefits have been realised in practice through a variety of pedestrianising measures. In Latin America, the Open Streets programme may have reduced disease and premature mortality. Many other cities have benefitted from "reductions in traffic-related air pollution, noise, and temperature in city centers" that are "likely to lead to a reduction in premature mortality and morbidity".

The health case for putting people and pedestrians at the heart of urban development could not be stronger.