Guest post: Professor Linda Jones from Cambridge Living Streets asks “Cars and human health – what price are we paying?”

Cambridge Living Streets is the local branch of the national charity working for better everyday walking. Cambridge Living Streets’ Linda Jones is Emeritus Professor of Health at the Open University.

We are now paying a significant health price for our sedentary, car-based lifestyle and our children are paying it too, faced with traffic danger, congestion, air pollution and lack of green space.

The Cambridgeshire Joint Strategic Needs Assessment on Transport and Health (JSNA, 2015) attributed over 5% of deaths across Cambridgeshire to air pollution. “Road vehicles have been sources of some of the most important air pollutants, especially PM2.5 and NO2 , which are of health concern, particularly in urban areas where there is large population exposure” (Chief Medical Officer Annual Report, 2022). Across the UK there is a nineteen year difference in people’s life expectancy between the best and worst areas: high air pollution levels and poor access to green space, along with poor housing, are identified as major contributors to this (Petrokofsky, 2022).

18,000 car trips to work across Cambridgeshire are less than 2km (JSNA, 2015). Shifting from cars to more active travel modes could help cut pollution – but it has much wider benefits. Most diseases across the European region – including strokes, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, cancers and mental health – are strongly linked to physical inactivity and to car dependency (World Health Organisation, 2022). Researchers calculated that 30 minutes walking or 20 minutes cycling per day reduces mortality by 10 per cent (Kelly et al, 2014).

Air pollution from traffic has impacted adults and children’s health, with rising rates of asthma and hospital admissions in peak pollution periods (Guarnieri and Balmes, 2014). Traffic growth has also been a key factor in reducing children‘s independent mobility. In the 1960s, the average range of children’s independent school and leisure travel was 5-10 kilometres. By the 1990s that range had shrunk to a few hundred metres (Hillman et al, 1991).

The dominance of the car has meant that other road users’ health and needs have been neglected. Roads, traffic lights, speed limits and crossings have been designed with cars, not pedestrians, in mind. High traffic levels, congested streets, pavement parking and poorly maintained footways have increased risks for all pedestrians, especially older and infirm people (Living Streets Survey of Walking, May 2022).

For the sake of our health we need to transform our environment and enable safe and active travel.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP)’s Sustainable Travel Zone proposals would reduce motor traffic by up to 50% in the Cambridge, as well as transforming the bus network and generating funding for improved walking and cycling links. We urge you to respond to the consultation on the proposals  before the deadline of 23 December 2022.