Research into the health effects of car-dependent cities has revealed a range of health effects and actions that could be improved with revised urban planning actions. Mark Stevenson, epidemiologist and Professor of Urban Transport and Public Health at the University of Melbourne, led the study, which was published in The Lancet.

The three-paper series, presented by the authors at an event hosted September 23, 2016 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in New York, examined cities worldwide and compared land-use, economic, and transport attributes, along with livability indexes. Cities studies include Melbourne, Copenhagen, London, Delhi, Boston, and Sao Paulo.

“This research has considerable implications for policy change,” said Professor Stevenson. “By quantifying the need for integrated city planning and its focus around modal choice for cities, it emphasises the need for sustainable transport that will deliver health gains for the future”.

According to the first paper, eight integrated interventions, when combined, can reduce automobile use and encourage walking, cycling, and use of public transport. Professor Professor Billie Giles-Corti, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit within the Melbourne School of Global and Population Health, led the first paper.

These eight factors are staples of walkable urban design, including infrastructure that supports safe walking and bicycling, making neighbourhoods convenient, attractive, and safe for public transport, creating open spaces, increasing the mix of housing and employment throughout the city, and boosting facilities and services within walking distance.

According to Professor Giles-Corti, “We concluded that focusing on walking and cycling infrastructure alone is critical but not enough – to create cities that promote health needs joined-up policies and input across multiple sectors:  land use, transport, housing, economic development, urban design, health and community services, and public safety”.

The second paper continues with metrics that support a “compact city” model. The model proposes urban planning interventions designed to improve health outcomes, including:

  • 30 per cent increase in land-use density
  • 30 per cent increase in diversity of land use
  • 30 per cent reduction in distance from public transportation
  • 10 per cent decrease in use of private vehicles.

Benefits of the compact cities model would accrue to human health through increased physical activity and reduction of pollution. “Adopting the compact cities model, that places an emphasis on active transport, provides a huge reduction in chronic diseases burden, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes” Professor Stevenson said. “The provision of safe infrastructure for active transport also reduces road trauma and transport related particulate emissions”.

With the proposed compact city interventions, Melbourne would see a 14 per cent reduction in Type 2 diabetes, a 19 per cent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and an increase of 679 healthy years of life per 100,000 residents.

“Compact cities will help reduce the environmental, social and behavioural risk factors that affect lifestyle choices, levels of traffic, environmental pollution, noise and crime,” said Professor Stevenson.

The series’ third paper provides data to guide city planning and policy in creating compact cities and achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and making cities that are sustainable, safe, inclusive, and resilient.

Other benefits of revising car-dependent cities are worth emphasizing. Researcher Matthew Williams, PdD, has noted a number of health effects in addition to obesity and diabetes, such as:

  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.”