Bursting the car bubble: Urban mobility for mental, social and physical health

This post originally appeared at the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health blog.

Does the way we move around our cities make us, and the planet, healthier or indeed happier?

In order to answer this question, we need to take a step back to understand why we move around our cities as we do today. In the twentieth century, car companies, urban planners, and national governments focused more on GDP than well-being and sold us private transport. Car corporations, backed by national governments, built lots of cars, planners laid out sprawling cities to accommodate them, city officials invested more in road infrastructure than public transit, and advertisers told us we needed a car to be happy and show our peers we were successful.

In many cities, such as Atlanta and Kuala Lumpur, people have been left with no alternative but to buy a car, unless they cannot afford one. Then getting around the city can be very problematic. The result in many cities is private automobile-dominated transport systems, with entrenched transport inequality. In other words, while the “haves” drive cars, low-income groups take the bus. These groups also have diminished access to workplaces and social gatherings with friends and community groups when public transit is infrequent or of poor quality in cities built for cars. The Brazilian politician and urban planner, Jamie Lerner, writing in The New York Times in December 2015, points out that cars take up more space than humans, and the average 50 square meters of space that a car occupies when parked at home and at work, is equal to the size of a family home or workplace in many countries. What if, as Lerner asks, this space was available instead for small businesses? Instead of “each to his own” in their private car bubble, we could replace the social isolation of car-dependent neighborhoods with the heightened sense of community found in more coffee houses, bookshops, pocket parks, and walkable streets.

By 2030 the number of cars on the world’s roads is anticipated to double to 2 billion. Much of that demand is coming from the burgeoning middle classes of China and India as they embrace the advertiser’s promise of “freedom” and status on the open road, an illusion which slowly unravels with each traffic jam. However, a century of the car has revealed that such car dependence has known health and well-being impacts, falling into five areas:

  1. road deaths and injuries, an annual average of 1.2 million deaths globally, according to a 2015 WHO road safety report
  2. respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease and cancer associated with air pollution
  3. obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease related to physical inactivity
  4. social isolation and higher rates of depression in car-dependent neighborhoods
  5. social and health inequalities, a sense of social exclusion of non-car owners, who nevertheless must breathe the pollutants emitted by cars.

But the health of people and the environment are inseparable. The transport sector is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. Climate change is leading to more extreme heat events, the effects of which are more intense in cities because of the urban ‘heat island’ phenomenon. The urban poor also suffer more from water-and-food-borne gastrointestinal infections, and vector-borne (e.g., dengue fever) diseases due to climate change.

So, the way we move around our cities can make us sick, or even kill us in other ‘distant’ ways, not just on the road. The best hope may be to stop driving cars which burn fossil fuels, and use active transport such as walking and cycling, as well as mass transit.

Tokyo transit riders

Different people sharing a train carriage in Tokyo. Photo by author.

However, we should acknowledge that cars do afford certain freedoms. They allow us to look after family members, for example, by transporting children and elderly parents to medical treatment, give us access to social networks and education and employment, and satisfy the consumer desires of some. However, the collective cost to society has been too high. As Jamie Lerner also said, “Cars are the cigarettes of the future.”

So, no, cars have made neither us, nor the planet, healthier. And while individuals may experience a brief spike in happiness as with any consumer purchase, and derive happiness from looking after family members with cars when necessary, cars are not an enduring source of personal happiness. Collectively, the impact of many cars, their infrastructure (roads, parking space, gas stations), noise, and emissions, degrades neighborhoods and diminishes our happiness and wellbeing.

We have now awakened to the fact that our cities have been designed primarily to move cars, rather than people. And, as the preeminent urbanist Jan Gehl poignantly reminds us, a city can be designed for cars or designed for people, but not for both.

While the automobile has a place in the mobility mix, active transport such as walking and cycling and mass transit options such as light rail and Bus Rapid Transit are more desirable for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are designed for everyone, not only for people with the means to afford a car. They promote individual health by making us more physically active and reduce pollution-related illness. Fewer carbon-emitting cars on the roads means fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And when cities are designed for people, rather than cars, public space is reconfigured towards more walkable neighborhoods, which encourage social interaction and build social cohesion within communities. And as the famous twentieth century urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in the 1960s, more walkable neighborhoods means “more eyes on the street,” the best and most natural form of security.

When most people rely on public transit, namely middle class and low-income groups, social equality is strengthened, and non-car owners suffer less from the fumes of cars they cannot afford. Children can walk and cycle without fear of being hit by cars, the elderly are more inclined to venture outdoors, and green space is restored to spaces previously occupied by cars. And our sensory landscape becomes more attractive, when the sound of cars and the smell of their fumes give way to the underlying sounds of the city itself, and the smell of fresh air.

Its is clear then that active transport, combined with public transit, makes us and the planet healthier, and makes for happier, more connected communities. Re-imagining mobility from a people-centred prism has had great results. In Mexico City, for example, new bikeshare systems are proving popular with women especially, a group that is often more vulnerable to transport exclusion, mostly due to safety fears. In Copenhagen, the preferred mode of transport for almost half of the population is the bicycle, and as the city ‘s Green Wave initiative is rolled out to make Copenhagen the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025, wireless LED lighting embedded in bicycle paths uses sensors feeding into software to provide information to cyclists about traffic conditions ahead.

But as we embrace this technology, we must not lose the lesson of the twentieth century – that mobility should be designed first and foremost for people, whose happiness and well-being is found in the social ties of strong walkable, human-scaled communities free of car fumes and the threat of traffic injury.

Photo: top, people walk along Manhattan’s High Line (George Bremer, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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