Air pollution and physical inactivity: Active transport for healthier cities

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europeans' activity levels could increase through biking to and from work. [Shutterstock]

National governments should also provide institutional and legislative frameworks that spur regional and local authorities to better integrate transport within wider health and environment policies, writes Alain Flausch.

Alain Flausch is Secretary General at UITP (International Association of Public Transport).

Governments and cities across Europe are facing a major crisis: the effects of physical inactivity, poor air quality, road traffic injuries, noise, stress and isolation – all intricately linked to transport and our urban environments – are causing a dramatic increase in health problems.

Insufficient physical activity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality and is on the rise in many countries according to the World Health Organisation. Due to sedentary lifestyles, cases of obesity, heart disease, strokes and certain cancers and diabetes are on the rise: partly because of our office-bound culture, but also due to our transport mode of choice: the private car.

How we move about in cities is having a direct impact on our health, but there is an alternative. The health benefits of active transport (walking and cycling) combined with public transport, including on diabetes, mental well-being, obesity and cardiovascular disease which would help us to prevent many of the 3.2 million deaths from physical inactivity.

Well-organised urban public transport offers major health benefits by facilitating more active lifestyles and also by fighting against climate change, cutting traffic congestion and reducing air and noise pollution. Urban air pollution and traffic injuries alone are responsible for 2.6 million deaths annually, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

Active modes of transport have also been shown to have direct economic benefits as well.

To cite just one example, 76,600 additional jobs could be created in the pan-European region if selected cities had the same cycling modal share as Copenhagen.

Compared with the sedentary experience of driving a car, public transport plays a central role in encouraging more active travel as most journeys by public transport also involve a walk or cycle to a stop or station.

In the UK, a study conducted on behalf of Greener Journeys showed that taking the bus five times per week provides half of the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times per week, with a typical bus journey involving 1.3 km of walking and 62 calories consumed compared to 0.3 km and 16 calories by car.

Walking and cycling are very much complementary with public transport and studies have shown that support to one is likely to lead an increase of the modal share of the other in many cases.

These benefits, however, require policies that actively support sustainable transport as well as adequate urban planning: for example, investment in making streets safer, greener and more inviting for pedestrians and cyclists to help improve public health and quality of life.

This in turns helps to increase accessibility based on urban regeneration, social inclusion and cohesion as well as boosting sustainable growth and jobs.

National governments should also provide institutional and legislative frameworks that spur regional and local authorities to better integrate transport within wider health and environment policies.

Encouraging active transport can be done, for example, by making sure that housing policies focus on urban densification and do not induce congestion or sprawl, which in turn leads to car dependency. Equally, employers can play their part by encouraging or rewarding sustainable mobility habits by setting up company mobility plans.

Lastly, assessing the effectiveness of urban mobility policies will require us to look beyond GDP figures and identify and assess the main transport-related factors that define quality of life in urban areas, such as: employment availability, safety, accessibility and urban amenities and services.

Urban transport policies can either actively enhance public health or pose a health risk to society: getting it right makes sense not only for the sake of our health, but it will help transform Europe’s cities into greener, more prosperous and agreeable places in which to live and do business.

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