Motor vehicle dependence is making us sick: How transportation and urban planners are part of the solution

By Mary Ebeling
A recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet focuses on prevention strategies for the global epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) stemming from an unsustainable reliance on a transportation system reliant on fossil fuels. Such diseases include such as traffic violence, obesity, or respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. To address this crisis, the authors makes strong arguments that transportation and urban planners must coordinate across departments and accept their professional roles in determining how people travel. They advocate for policies to create multimodal transportation systems to prioritize walking, cycling, and public transport, resulting in substantially reduced urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and a range of environmental and health benefits.
The researchers note that the transport sector accounts for 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Seventy-five percent of these emissions are from road transportation.  In urban environments where destinations can more easily be located to support shorter and fewer trips, there are missed opportunities to improve active transportation use and improve health outcomes. While these planning professionals may not always directly control how people choose to travel, if the public is not provided a range of options, mode choices become self-limiting. This lack of mode choice creates a negative feedback for health and quality of life.
The researchers highlight six key themes that transportation and urban planners should prioritize as they plan for how people will travel in cities and metro areas. Quoting the article, these are:

  • Significant global health challenges are being confronted in the 21st century, and well planned cities that encourage walking, cycling, and public transport use have an important role to play in addressing these challenges
  • Urban and transport planning and design can directly and indirectly affect non-communicable diseases, traffic injuries, and other adverse health and environmental outcomes
  • Local and regional interventions can affect urban and transport planning and design, and these influence environmental, social, and behavioral risk exposures
  • Integration of well implemented urban systems policies are needed to achieve healthy livable cities
  • To deliver compact pedestrian and bicycle friendly cities that enable the reduction in motor-vehicle travel transportation, planning and health agencies must develop locally appropriate legal, administrative, and technical frameworks.
  • Performance measures are necessary in city planning to monitor progress within and between cities

The authors then highlight eight city and regional-level interventions that, when combined, encourage walking, cycling, and public transport use, while reducing private motor vehicle use. The authors recommend concurrently establishing a set of indicators to benchmark and monitor progress toward achievement of more compact cities that promote health and reduce health inequities.
Lest anyone think “American is different” on these challenges, another recent study from Gallup Healthways documents improvements in wellbeing and health outcomes among U.S. cities investing in active transportation modes such as biking, walking, transit. It suggests metro areas in the U.S. could benefit from the type of paradigm shift advocated in the Lancet.
Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.