Car traffic has serious adverse impacts on human health as a result of exhaust emissions, noise and accidents. Sealed traffic areas increase urban heat effects, consumption of space and resources. But mobility can also contribute significantly to creating healthier cities.
Health and mobility are closely connected. Car traffic is a threat to human health. Exhaust gases from internal combustion engines are among the main causes of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Particle pollution is also produced by tyre wear of all vehicles, independently of the drive system. The high degree of soil sealing by streets and car parking spaces causes heat islands to form on hot days. Moreover, vehicles produce noise and are responsible for traffic accidents that result in serious or even fatal injuries.
How mobility contributes to better health
Active mobility such as walking and cycling promotes health. Regular physical activity can help prevent cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia and other chronic diseases, among others, and can reduce the risk of developing cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, which is just over 20 minutes of daily exercise. Children and adolescents should engage in at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Air pollution, heat and noise increase health risks in urban areas
Die Traffic-related air pollution in major cities is especially problematic due to population density and high construction densities. Air pollutants affect the respiratory system, the lung function and the cardiovascular system. Almost half of the nitrogen oxides emissions in Austria comes from car traffic. Moreover, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is especially dangerous to health. The traffic infrastructure in cities and the resulting high degree of sealing with high levels of radiant heat and urban heat effects in summer are also damaging to health. In Vienna, the number of hot days with a maximum temperature greater than 30 degrees Celsius has more than doubled since 1961, reaching over 20 days a year. The increasing heat stresses the cardiovascular system and intensifies the harmful effects of air pollutants. Noise pollution, which is mainly caused by traffic, is another important factor in cities affecting health. Noise can be responsible for poor concentration and lack of sleep, among others. Apart from its impact on mental health, chronic exposure to noise has also been associated with physical illnesses such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular diseases. About one third of the Austrian population was affected by noise pollution in their homes in 2019. In 40 percent of these cases, car traffic was the most significant source of noise.
More and more cities are reducing speed limits
Vehicle noise increases with speed. Noise from urban roads with a speed limit of 50 km/h is about three decibels louder than from roads with a 30 km/h speed limit. The human ear perceives an increase of three decibels as a doubling of traffic volume. In August 2021, Paris introduced a 30 km/h speed limit on all roads, except on the main thoroughfares. Starting in 2024, seven central districts will be largely car-free. Brussels implemented a city-wide general 30 km/h maximum speed limit already in January 2021. In the first year since the introduction of a default 30 km/h speed limit across the city, the number of traffic fatalities in Belgium‘s capital halved. The number of serious injuries fell by 20 percent, the noise level dropped by up to 4.8 decibels.
Less space for cars means more space for people
Less car traffic and lower speeds do not only increase road safety, but also the usability of public space. The space required to establish diverse activity zones in the cities, which are usually densely populated, is currently taken up by car traffic, which has so far occupied a disproportionately large amount of space. While in Vienna only 27 percent of all journeys are made by car, lanes and parking spaces for cars occupy about two thirds of road space. The Park Day initiative has been demonstrating alternative uses of parking spaces since 2005.
Cities provide traffic areas for multifunctional use
Globally, a growing number of cities are beginning to make areas that were previously reserved mainly for cars available for other use. In Rome, for example, the city centre has been almost completely car-free for 15 years. Access is permitted only for residents. There are plans to transform Paris into a “15-minute city” in the long run. The individual neighbourhoods are to blend housing, shopping facilities, co-working spaces for decentralised working, healthcare facilities as well as cultural and leisure facilities, so that almost all journeys can be made without a car in less than 15 minutes. This concept does not only promote healthy mobility but also social contacts, which are especially important for children and adolescents. Barcelona has adopted a different approach. By implementing so-called superblocks, the city creates room for shared urban uses within a three times three of city blocks. Both road safety and quality of life are greatly enhanced by superblocks.
How major cities promote healthy mobility
Amsterdam is issuing only a very limited number of resident parking permits. The city will transform 11,000 car parking spaces into wider pavements, cycle paths or more green areas by 2025. More than 250 EU cities have established low-emission zones, which resulted in a significant reduction of nitrogen oxides emissions. London drivers have abandoned diesel cars six times faster than those in the rest of the UK since plans for an expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ ) were announced in 2017. Since its launch, the ULEZ contributed to a 44 percent reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide in central London. In the low emission zone established in 2018 in Brussels, the share of diesel cars fell below 50 percent at the end of 2020, compared to 62 percent before its creation. Switzerland, in turn, achieved a substantial reduction in particulate matter emissions as early as in 2006 through the implementation of an action plan, by consistently fitting diesel vehicles with particulate filters.
Cities on their way to healthy mobility
Since 2005, cities have been able to establish Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) based on quality criteria accompanied by evaluation. SUMPs are guidelines for designing climate-friendly and people-centred traffic planning. In Austria, the cities of Vienna, Graz, Salzburg, Klagenfurt, Schwechat and Perchtoldsdorf have implemented a SUMP or are in the planning phase. Across Europe, more than one thousand cities have implemented their own SUMP.
Reaching 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030
The European Commission has set aside EUR 350 million for research and innovation actions in the fields of mobility, energy and urban planning for the EU Mission for climate-neutral and smart cities as part of an EU-wide funding programme in the period 2021-23. In a first step, the Austrian cities of Klagenfurt, Linz and Graz entered the pool of 360 European cities that have been found eligible.
More space for healthy mobility
Making urban traffic healthier also protects the environment as air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that affect health are mainly caused by internal combustion engines. If more journeys are made by physically active means, car traffic will decrease, and with it, the levels of exhaust gases and emissions. Car-free days may result in a reduction in nitrogen dioxide by more than 20 percent. Cities that manage to reduce the local levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide or ground-level ozone will also improve the health of the resident population at a local level and in the short run. From a longer-term perspective, this will also reduce greenhouse gases that affect the global climate.
Healthy cities are resilient to climate change
Compact building design also allows for an adequate level of mixed-use developments with social infrastructures that are distributed over the entire area, small-scale and therefore easy to reach on foot or by bike. Initiatives such as the European Mobility Week provide an opportunity to showcase best practice examples, learn from each other and involve the population in the debate. The city of short distances does not only promote the health of residents and an increase in walking and cycling but also encourages social interaction in the neighbourhoods.
Making cities healthier and more climate-friendly in the future.
In cities, air and noise emissions from cars, the risk of road traffic accidents and urban heat due to excessive soil sealing are particularly high.
- It takes a variety of measures, in particular more traffic calming features, the redesign of street space and the creation of green spaces, to design healthy cities.
- The reduction of the default speed limit in urban areas to 30km/h reduces traffic noise, improves road safety for pedestrians and cyclists in particular, and increases the quality of life in cities.
- Low-emission zones and car-free city centres are internationally tried and tested measures for increasing air quality and should be implemented in Austrian cities too.
- The fair distribution of public space by reducing car parking spaces and creating an accessible, easy-to-use infrastructure improves the attractiveness of cities and increases road safety for everyone.
- Active mobility has a positive effect on physical and mental health. Without an attractive environment and high-quality infrastructure, the potential of cycling and walking cannot be fully exploited.
Lina Mosshammer, VCÖ - Mobility with a future:
„There are many successful concepts and best practices for making cities sustainable and healthy. A shift towards fair distribution of street space by traffic planners is the basis for designing healthy and climate-friendly cities.“
Source: VCÖ, „Gesunde Städte durch gesunde Mobilität“ publication series „Mobilität mit Zukunft“, Vienna 2022
This factsheet was produced with the financial support of the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology.