WHO Finds Significant Health & Climate Benefits associated with Transit & Active Transportation

The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that the climate change mitigation strategies that significantly increase the accessibility, affordability and quality of public transit and active transportation (e.g. cycling), and the land use measures that support these modes of transportation, will generate much greater health co-benefits than those which focus solely on vehicle and fuel technologies.

The WHO has released a new report, “Health co-benefits of climate change mitigation – Transport Sector”.  Based on a review of 300 peer reviewed and health-related articles and reports, this report concludes that the transportation systems around the world are responsible for approximately 5.8 million deaths per year:

  • 3.2 million deaths from physical inactivity;
  • 1.3 million deaths from road traffic injuries;
  • 1.3 million deaths from outdoor air pollution.

The WHO report begins by noting that, on a global basis, the transportation sector is responsible for 23 per cent of the greenhouse gases that are emitted, with land transport responsible for 80 per cent of those emissions. The report estimates that 40 to 50 per cent of Canada’s urban emissions of greenhouse gases could be avoided, for less than US$200 per tonne, if aggressive land use policies were used to: reduce travel demand; shift people from motorized vehicles to walking, cycling and transit; and emphasize more densely built and energy-efficient housing.

The WHO report concludes that a significant shift from private motorized vehicles to walking, cycling and public transit could also:

  • Reduce cardiovascular and respiratory disease from air pollution;
  • Reduce traffic-related injuries;
  • Reduce noise and noise-related stress; and
  • Reduce chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancers that are associated with physical inactivity.

The report found that climate mitigation strategies that are directed at increasing walking, cycling and public transit, can improve health equity as well.  The researchers found that socially disadvantaged groups tends to experience more transportation-related health risks due to air pollution, noise and vehicle-related collisions, because they tend to live in closer proximity to high volume traffic corridors.  These groups also tend to have less income for travel and less access to public transit and active transportation facilities.

The WHO report notes that: “improved active transportation and rapid transit/public transportation is not only healthy; it is cost-effective”.   For example, the International Panel on Climate Change found that greenhouse gas emissions in Latin America could be reduced by 25 per cent at relatively little cost (i.e. about $30 per tonne of CO2) if funds were directed at providing bus rapid transit, pedestrian upgrades and cycleways.

The WHO reports identifies four key strategies that should be used to maximize the health, climate and cost benefits associated with this approach to the transportation sector:

  • More compact land use that integrates residential and commercial areas to support active transportation and public transit;
  • The inclusion of health and equity costs into cost-benefit assessments that are directed at transportation projects and planning;
  • The use of health assessment tools in transportation and land use policies; and
  • Investments in active transportation and rapid transit/public transit.

World Health Organization (WHO).  Health in the Green Economy.  Health co-benefits of climate change mitigation – Transport Sector.  2011 (156  pages). Prepared by Jamie Hosking, Pierpaol Mudu, and Carlos Dora. http://www.who.int/hia/examples/trspt_comms/hge_transport_lowresdurban_30_11_2011.pdf30_11_2011.pdf

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