Low carbon transport systems better for planet and people

Dec 12, 2011
Low carbon transport systems better for planet and people

Bike Auckland

Low carbon transport systems do more than help create a healthy planet. They can help improve the health of people according to a new World Health Organisation report, involving a University of Auckland researcher as a lead author.

The WHO report, released in Durban last week, shows that cycling, walking and rapid-transit systems bring a wide range of health benefits. It suggests climate experts need to take these into account in assessing and planning low-carbon transport systems.

More than 300 studies on different land transport systems were reviewed to find transport factors most closely associated with health risks or benefits. The review found a large body of evidence linking rapid-transit and non-motorised transport systems with reduced environmental health risks and increased health benefits.

Dr Jamie Hosking, lead author and Public Health Consultant from the University’s School of Population Health, saystook part in the study. “Due to the health gains, well-designed low-carbon transport systems can provide a ’win-win‘ for both developed and developing countries, and for an economic sector with a large carbon footprint,” he says. “Transport accounts for nearly one-quarter of all direct CO2 emissions worldwide.

“More compact cities, with mixed-use developments that place homes and businesses near each other, along with improved amenities for walking and cycling, are also strongly associated with better health. These benefits are most important of all for people who lack access to a car,” says Dr Hosking.

While increased physical activity from walking and cycling is well-established as a means of preventing heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes, this report focuses on health outcomes in specific settings and transport systems.

The report noted, for instance, a 20-30 percent lower average risk of premature death among cyclists in some major cities, even after injury risks were considered.

The report also documents a wide range of other health benefits from prioritising transit and non-motorised networks. These include reduced noise stress, fewer road traffic injuries and lower air pollution exposures in areas where there is a strong emphasis on traffic calming, traffic diversion, and non-motorised transport.

Dr Carlos Dora, of WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment, initiated the study as part of WHO’s Health in the Green Economy initiative on health co-benefits of key climate change mitigation measures. Dora is also a co-author of the series along with Dr Pierpaolo Mudu of WHO’s Regional Office for Europe.

Speaking at a press briefing during COP-17 in Durban, Dr Dora noted that until now, too much emphasis had been placed on alternative vehicles and fuels in climate assessment work so far, while not enough attention had been given to strategies such as transit, walking and cycling, which can address a wide range of health risks, from pollution to safety and physical activity.

“Many kinds of climate and transport measures can yield large, immediate, benefits for health, but some climate measures may be very bad for health, for example diesel,” Dr Dora noted.

“At the local level, more reliance on diesel can increase relative risks of respiratory and heart disease. Also, better fuels don’t do anything for noise, for physical activity and for safety risks. Public transport and safe cycling and walking do help reduce these risks, too.”

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