An EU strategy boosting walking and cycling would have helped to clean up the air in our cities, achieve the EU’s climate goals and prevent disease, argues Anne Stauffer.
Anne Stauffer is the director for strategy and campaigns at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
The EU’s new strategy for sustainable and smart mobility sets the important framework for rolling out zero-emission vehicles and traffic management of the future, but it missed to consider and set targets for the quickest and simplest key to creating cleaner, healthier streets and communities: more walking and cycling.
Health professionals have long been aware of and vocal about the triple health win that is active mobility. Walking and cycling reduces CO2 emissions, air pollution, noise and congestion. And greater physical activity makes us healthier – we live longer, health care costs diminish and work becomes more productive.
As the EU continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic and searches for the recovery path, this shift to a healthier transport system, not merely a more sustainable one, has never been more crucial. Active mobility is key to tackling the key risk factors for chronic disease in Europe that lead to a high health burden and healthcare costs, as well as productivity losses.
But it is also key to boosting people’s health overall and increasing resilience against future pandemics.
An EU spotlight on active mobility would have been welcome news especially to city mayors and local councils, supporting their efforts for a healthy city of tomorrow.
Decision-makers of the EU’s biggest cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Sofia, have taken measures on climate mitigation and clean air, or have assigned new cycle lanes and pedestrian areas as part of COVID-19 safety measures.
Networks such as the C40 cities have committed to a green recovery that will save lives and create jobs. While the crucial role of cities in the transition to greater sustainability is highlighted in the strategy, the EU Commission leaves them out in the cold when it comes to financing for healthier urban infrastructure.
In fact, cycling didn’t even make it into the Commission’s 10 action points for the sustainability shift.
Yet, a clear EU commitment for active mobility would allow mayors to double down on the necessary infrastructure for increasing health and well-being for residents.
The evidence on how our current polluting and CO2-intensive transport sector contributes to disease is clear: each year, 400,000 people die prematurely from air pollution, the EU’s top environmental threat to health.
The latest assessment by the European Environment Agency (EEA) reconfirms that the majority of the EU’s city dwellers breathe air that is considered harmful to health (in cities transport is the major air emissions sector).
After air pollution, noise is the second most important factor for the environmental burden of disease, with one fifth of the EU population exposed to traffic noise levels that are harmful to health. And these numbers don’t even include the health damage and cost from climate change, especially from heatwaves and other extreme weather events.
In addition, physical inactivity is a great health concern across the EU.
Recent figures indicate that six in every 10 people above 15 years of age never or seldom exercise or play a sport, and more than half never or seldom engage in other kinds of physical activity, increasing their risk for early death, heart disease, diabetes, breast and colon cancers, stroke, hypertension and obesity, and also impacting their mood and mental health.
Initial studies at city level underline the huge cost savings potential of active mobility: In Barcelona, an increase of 26.7% for trips walked during the week, and an increase of 72% of trips cycled over just five years led to €47.3 million health economic benefits from increased walking and €4.7 million from cycling.
For Porto, a modal shift towards active transportation could lead to up to €6.7 billion in health benefits, through reductions in cancer, diabetes, heart and cerebrovascular disease. And last but not least, greater active mobility also contributes to reducing the carbon footprint of a city, as another study for 6 cities across Europe showed.
In the EU Green Deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has enshrined her commitment to a healthy planet for healthy people. The EU’s new mobility strategy has missed a key opportunity to deliver on a health-promoting transport system of the future.