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Here in the UK, private car ownership has risen dramatically since the 1960s, leaving cities ill-equipped to cater for small, everyday journeys because of its ease of travel (Koolhaas 1996). This increase has a hugely detrimental effect on one’s health. Further awareness of the harmfulness of motor vehicles should be enough to discourage people from their use, although this does not seem to be the case. In this post, I will discuss the severity of air pollution and the negative health effects of car use. I will then consider the alternatives; namely ways of reducing transport emissions through active modes of transport.

Source: Air Quality NewsCyclists among traffic in London – Air Quality News

As of 2016, there are around 30 million registered private vehicles in the UK – three times as many as there were 50 years ago (Leibling, 2008). Cities are built to accommodate for large numbers of commuters using private vehicles. As a result, we see many negative effects such as low-density urban sprawl, social isolation, decline of small businesses and effects on public health (Price, 2015). The efficiency of the car often makes us forget about the damage it is doing to ourselves and our cities.

wynyard-low-densityLow-density neighbourhood means a reliance on the motorcar, Wynyard Village – Google

Effects on Public Health

It is a well-known and supported fact that emissions from motor vehicles have a negative impact upon our health (Pucher et al, 1999, Shannon et al, 2006, Stevenson et al, 2015 amongst others). Some common pollutants emitted from exhausts are listed and explained below (British Columbia Air Quality):

tableClearly, inhalation of pollutants emitted from motor vehicles is incredibly dangerous. Other health impacts, such as obesity, are increasingly evident in countries such as the United States, where around 70% of adults are considered to be overweight, obese or extremely obese (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2012). This is largely because of their reliance on the motor vehicle due to the low-density urban form of the USA. It is therefore a necessity to move towards more active modes of transport, such as walking, cycling or public transport (Shannon et al, 2006).

us-obese-jpgObesity levels in the US – NIDDK

Moving Towards More Active Modes of Transport

The Department for Transport’s (DfT) ‘Manual for Streets’, highlights that they aim to “increase quality of life through good design which creates more people orientated streets” (DfT, 2007). This suggests an attempt to mitigate low-density urban sprawl by creating higher density neighbourhoods which are sustainable and able to support local amenities, businesses and transport systems. Not only this, but it suggests a movement towards a pedestrian/cyclist-friendly environment. This is later backed up in the Manual for Streets when they set out a user hierarchy for streets, with pedestrians and cyclists ranked 1st and 2nd respectively – unsurprisingly private motor vehicles are considered last.

user-hierarchyUser hierarchy guide in the Manual for Streets – DfT

I will now briefly discuss the three ‘active’ modes of transport highlighted by Shannon et al, (2006) and the benefits to health and wellbeing they bring.

Cycling is obviously beneficial to one’s health. Stevenson et al, (2015) discuss that “those who regularly cycle are less likely to be overweight, less likely to suffer from obesity-related diseases and have improved mental health.” They also state that “bicycles are an environmentally sustainable transport mode” and have the ability to “reduce vehicle congestion and exhaust pollution.” As it was made clear earlier, exhaust pollution is a serious problem to our health, and cycling, whilst improving our physical health directly, also helps to reduce pollution.

Walking carries many of the benefits that cycling does, such as an improvement in cardio-vascular endurance and reductions in the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart diseases, asthma and diabetes (NHS, 2016). Walking, however, has one more benefit which is often very appealing to everyone – it’s free.

Public transport is considered to be active because there is usually some form of walking or cycling at the beginning or end of the journey (Shannon et al, 2006). Although it is not necessarily as environmentally friendly as cycling or walking, it is often considered more accessible as people of all ages and abilities can use it (Public Transport Victoria, 2013) – a person of 75+ is more likely to use a bus than a bicycle.

There is evidence in the UK of cities who have prioritised pedestrians and cyclists. Cambridge City Council (CCC, 2006) state in their Local Plan that “all developments will be designed to give priority for these modes over cars” as they are “healthy, affordable and sustainable”. They highlight the best way to encourage these modes is to “fully include them at the planning stage”. It is clear that CCC understand the benefits of sustainable transport and have adopted a strategy (Cambridge Walking and Cycling Strategy) in order to achieve it. Also, CCC’s Local Plan (2006) firmly states that “development will not be permitted where it would inhibit the expansion of high quality public transport”, highlighting their desire to protect and expand their current public transport network.

cycling-cambridgeSeparated cycle lane, Cambridge –

All three of these modes of transport can help to greatly reduce the impact of transport emissions from the private motor vehicle. Also, since the DfT’s Manual for Streets was published, the three have been ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the user hierarchy guide to designing streets. A reduction in air pollutants from the car means for a healthier ecosystem, which in turn means for a healthier nation.


British Columbia Air Quality, no date, How Vehicle Emissions Affect Us, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

Cambridge City Council Environment and Planning, 2006, Cambridge Local Plan 2006, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 Jan 2017]

Department for Transport, 2015, Transport Statistics Great Britain 2015, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

Koolhass R, 1995, “The Generic City” and “Whatever happened to urbanism?”, The Urban Design Reader, 2nd Edition, pp.358-372

Leibling D, 2008, Car Ownership in Great Britain, London: RAC Foundation

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2012, Overweight and Obesity Statistics, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

NHS, 2016, Walking for Health, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

Price A, 2015, ‘Strong Towns’ The Negative Consequences of Car Dependancy, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

Public Transport Victoria, 2013, Benefits of Public Transport, [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 3 Jan 2017]

 Pucher J, Komanoff C, Schimek P, 1999, “Bicycle renaissance in North America? Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling”, Transport Research Part A, Vol 33 (7-8), pp.625-65.

Stevenson M, Johnson M, Oxley J, Meuleners L, Gabbe B, Rose G, 2015, “Safer cycling in the urban road environment: study approach and protocols guiding an Australian study”, Injury Prevention, Vol 21 (3).

Shannon T, Giles-Corti B, Pikora T, Bulsara M, Shilton T, Bull F, 2006, “Active commuting in a university setting: Assessing commuting habits and potential for modal change”, Transport Policy, Vol 13, pp. 240-253.


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