Removing cars from cities offers major health benefits

Cars are not only responsible for high levels of air pollution in cities, but they also prevent urban residents from going outdoors and enjoying their own streets. This in turn worsens the already negative health impacts of air pollution.

In an article published on the World Economic Forum website, Audrey de Nazelle makes a strong argument for removing cars from cities.

According to Nazelle, a lecturer in air pollution management at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, current urbanization trends indicate that some two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. This means more cars on the roads, more traffic congestion near homes and workplaces, and less green space.

With air pollution already now the fourth biggest killer in the world, one that contributes to more than six million deaths each year, bold action needs to be taken to clean up our cities’ air.

As Nazelle rightly points out: “It’s outrageous that we’ve reached a point where it’s healthier for some people to stay inside and not exercise, rather than walk outside and breathe polluted air.”

This is particularly the case in smog-plagued cities such as Delhi and Beijing where cycling for more than an hour every day can do more harm to you than good. But even major European cities are too polluted for many people to enjoy the outdoors and get some regular physical activity. A recent study showed that for people over 60, toxic air pollution cancelled out some of the health benefits they got from taking a walk along Oxford Street, one of the London’s most congested streets.

For Nazelle, the solution to this health crisis is not merely to reduce emissions or develop cleaner or more efficient fuels. Instead, she sees an “exciting opportunity to go much further and fundamentally rethink the way cities work”.

Rather than thinking of our streets as just meant for cars to get from A to B, we should see them as a place to walk and cycle, where children play or where neighbours can meet, argues Nazelle. This would both reduce emissions and bring major health benefits due to increased physical activity.

Some cities are already moving in this direction. Milan, Copenhagen, Madrid and Paris have all announced car-free visions, and Oslo even plans to ban all cars from its city centre permanently by 2019. In Asia, Chengdu in China is designing a new residential area that will make it easier for people to walk everywhere, and thus reduce the need for cars.

Nazelle is confident that we will one day create cities that improve our public health. “Why not start now, and start reaping the benefits?” she asks.

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

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