New WHO Report Needs Political Buy-In


A World Health Organisation report released today on transport and the effects on health state the obvious – but it’s a message that needs to be absorbed by our motorway-obsessive politicians.

The report, with an Auckland University staffer as a key researcher, says that rapid transit and safe cycling/walking networks are good for both health and climate – and climate experts should consider more systematically how these strategies can reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector, one of the world’s major contributors to climate change.

The report looked at studies of health outcomes in association with different types of transport investments; transport system use; and land use patterns, and identifying some of the following health-transport linkages:

  • increased physical activity among people who walk and cycle regularly as part of their transport routine. Some studies also cited evidence of lower mortality or lower disease incidence from such physical activity, which can help prevent heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, and some other obesity-related risks
  •  reduced risks of premature mortality among people who cycle to work in some major urban studies, even after injury risks are considered; relative risk of mortality was as much as 20-30% lower in studies tracking large populations over time in both Copenhagen and Shanghai
  •  lower urban air pollution concentrations and exposures in cities and transport systems that rely heavily upon clean rapid transit and non-motorized transport
  •  lower rates of traffic injury in cities with comparatively less travel by private vehicles and more via transit/non-motorized modes; lower injury rates in cycle and pedestrian-friendly areas such as low-speed zones; and lower injury rates among transit users generally
  • Reduced noise stress in neighbourhoods where there is a strong emphasis on traffic calming, traffic diversion, and non-motorised transport
  •  Strong rapid transit, cycling and walking networks also were found to yield added health benefits for vulnerable groups that typically have less access to private vehicles, including: children/teens, the elderly, women, people with disabilities, and lower wage-earners.

One key finding of the report was that making diesel vehicles a central feature of climate mitigation could generate new health risks from air pollution exposures.
A key researcher was from the University of Auckland.

Dr Jamie Hosking, Public Health Consultant from Auckland University’s School of Population Health, says: “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. 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.”

While the evidence about increased physical activity from walking and cycling has been well-established as a means of preventing heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes, this report looks more carefully at 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 says that while diesel vehicles are often more fuel-efficient, they also emit comparatively higher levels of small particulates than conventional gasoline engines.

Higher ambient average concentrations of small particulates (PM10, PM2.5) have been linked to comparatively higher rates of premature mortality in many epidemiological studies and WHO Air Quality Guidelines (2005) recommend guideline values for average small particulate concentrations that are far lower than those common in many developing cities today.

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 engines. 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.”

The report reviewed over 300 studies on health outcomes from different types of land transport systems in a “scoping exercise” designed to identify those mitigation measures most closely associated with specific health co-benefits or risks.

One area under the spotlight is South Africa where Jeremy Cronin, South Africa’s Deputy Minister has welcomed the report saying that more than 15,000 people are killed on the roads every year, 40% of them pedestrians, and significant numbers are children of the poor working classes.

Transport affects air quality and health

In South Africa the average bus trip is about 20-25 kilometres, as compared to London where it’s about 8 kilometres. And that kicks into all of the challenges raised, as there is congestion, long travel distances, and huge pressures on people.

“As government we are trying to reverse this spatial divide, building mixed-use developments, where people can access resources, live and work. And with this report we are better equipped to make the argument more strongly. The solutions are not simple ones, and require cooperation among mitigation, transport and health sectors rather than laying blame.

“Too often in the transport sector, the interventions are very technical. We fail to look at the local and the social dimension. It is essential that we look at building resilient communities, not becoming overly technical in our solutions.

“In South Africa right now, we can’t push people out of their cars yet, as else they can’t get anywhere until we have provided viable alternatives. … So we really welcome this publication as it gives us a better understanding of what we are facing in South Africa on the transport and the health front.”

I look forward to the new transport minister making similar comments and acting on them.




  1. ingolfson says:

    A very large sample size study of Barcelona’s public bike network found that the health benefits (extended life expectancy) outweighed the health drawbacks (minor increased exposure to accidents and pollution) by a factor of 77.

    A factor - not percent! Cycling was literally 77 times more healthy than not cycling for a sample group of over a hundred thousand of people.

  2. Ben says:

    Hate to be the devil advocate’s here but I can probably think of another way of improving health of our population without encroaching on Freedom-Choice-(and responsibility).

    ___ Prong Solution

    1) Improve our fuel quality especially diesel as it is in frankness utter crap and high in sulphur.

    2) Improve the accessibility to newer cars, trucks and buses that have better burning engines and exhaust filter systems thanks to improvements in technology

    3) Try and decrease the average age of our transportation fleet (through point two)

    4) Improve our maintanence standards on the fleet. Good regular maintanence means cleaner burning engine, less exhaust and those pesky micro particles such as sulphur and carbon soot, better performance and fuel economy

    5) Strict enforcement policies for the above to get our pollution levels down.

    Start with those ideas above and I am sure you would of improved the health of city (and the economy on the way out)

    Once we have achieved that then we can move on-to other ideas (except this compact city model…)

  3. Matt says:

    My 4 prong solution:
    1. Minimise the amount of diesel particulates by making more refined diesel available with lower sulphur content. Only E5 (the strictest European standard) diesel engines and fuel allowed.
    2. Concentrating on electric rail provision (such as building the city link, airport rail and eventually north shore rail) and eliminating diesel buses, replacing them with compressed natural gas buses and with electric trains, and integrating ticketing and using feeder buses to the train network.
    3. Make an effort to build extensive city-wide safe bicycle infrastructure and integrating it with PT in meaningful ways, including secure bike storage, bike racks on buses, and a working non-helmeted bike share scheme.
    4. Reduce all other sources of particulate pollution, vehicular and non-vehicular by banning 2-stroke motorcycles and scooters, 2-stroke lawnmowers, and where the most gains can be made, by banning all woodburners. Yes ban all woodburners. They contribute most of the particulate PM10 and PM2.5 pollution in NZ towns and cities, even in car dependent Auckland.

  4. ingolfson says:

    “without encroaching on Freedom-Choice-(and responsibility”

    So the fact that this government (and various ones before that) have plowed almost 100% of the infrastructure investment in ONE mode of transport DOESN’T limit my freedom of choice?

    Sorry Ben, but if you want freedom of choice, show me a good cycle route from Botany to Panmure, a good public transport route from Onehunga to Avondale, a reliable way to get to Hamilton that doesn’t involve owning a car or taking a plane, and a way to build an apartment building that doesn’t require acres of car parks.

    All you argue for in your post is “let’s fix the car issues first, then we can look at these other new-fangled things”. Repeating 50 years of history for what? For even more obesity (now with slightly less air pollution)?

  5. Geoff Houtman says:

    Since we’re getting all “prongy”- 2 prong solution.

    1- CRL

    2- Trams dammit! Even the Greens don’t get it- diesel buses are not your friend or anyone’s friend! Dammit!

    3- (I know I only said 2) BRING BACK 0800 SMOKEY. Ban idling- esp. buses, trucks and couriers. Report the befoulers of the 3rd best city in the world…

  6. Ben says:

    Yes without encroaching on Freedon-Choice-(and responsibility)

    As P/T and cycling only option is the not the end-all solution for Auckland as it can never satisfy every single one of our needs including mine and I work for the Auckland Metro Rail.

    Who said I was for cars first, read carefully and I also stated fix buses and trucks as well seeming our fuel is crap and the transport fleet is pretty old and not maintained well. Even Geoff in his point three would see the point via 0800 SMOKEY to help get pollution down.

    Also you will find I am not “all cars either,” my submission to Auckland Council for the Draft Hearing Plan would account to that. And your apartment building comment… errr usually the required car parks are built underground (I said usually) so rather self-defeating there.

    I was going to mention something about Totalitarian but won’t for this post.

  7. Ben says:

    Apologies for double post

    A link came across my way that I think is rather relevant

    Interesting article and personally worthy to adding the debate

  8. Matt says:

    I think the heading for the post is spot on. The quality of the built environment and air quality are issues all politicians dodge. They think there are no votes in it (because they don’t credit the electorate with any nouse), and most pollies are too limited themselves to understand the not-inconsiderable amount of science. But you’re right - it does need political buy-in.

    And to save me and others googling it can we have a link the the WHO report please?

  9. Tim says:

    @Ben, I’m not too sure about your solution…
    As Ingolfson said, including the emissions and accidents, the health benefits of cycling are much greater than if you keep driving (you’re kind of advocating more driving by focussing solely on road transport).
    Secondly, the report calls for non-technical solutions, not going crazy on technology, what you’re advocating for will mean increased prices for fuel and cars, we’ll work longer trying to pay for them, incurring even further health issues.


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