Sustainable, Low-Carbon Transport: A Catalyst for Better Public Health and Transforming Our Cities

Christopher Dekki calls upon cities and policymakers to embrace a systems-thinking approach that takes the nexus between public health and transport as a starting point for action.

Human health matters. Don’t believe me? Simply ask 2020. That fateful year proved to us that governments at all levels were willing to go to any lengths to stop the spread of a virus that, at the time, we knew very little about – both in terms of contagiousness and impact on the human body. Even today, our knowledge of COVID-19 continues to evolve, in tandem with new mutations that still pose risks to our globalised world.

Nevertheless, even as we struggle with the coronavirus, and many countries begin to categorise it as endemic, there is constant concern about the viability of healthcare systems and their ability to handle further outbreaks. Healthcare systems were unequal and fragile before 2020, and today, remain so. While many lessons could have been learned from the pandemic, especially in terms of policy shifts that would steer governments towards meaningfully serving people and planet rather than GDP growth, there is still little being done to bolster the resilience of healthcare systems and overall wellness – only further exacerbating risks associated with the virus.

But combatting COVID, particularly in cities, and adopting a fuller appreciation of public health, requires governments to go a few steps further and embrace a systems-thinking approach to how we organise and plan communities. While systems-thinking can lead to near endless possibilities of policy and stakeholder interfaces, an easy, and increasingly pertinent intersection is the nexus between public health and transport.

So Much More Than Going From Point A To Point B

Cities all over the world shut down in 2020 as the world grappled with the mysteries of the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, there was a concern for healthcare systems being stretched to their limits as many people suffering from COVID-19 were rushed to the hospital. This concern lead to an eventual explosion of private vehicle use among people who owned them, as well as an unprecedented growth in delivery services where they were available.

At the time, we thought we were keeping people safe by keeping them apart and socially distanced – discouraging public transport and encouraging consumers with means and access to order groceries and other items through one of the ever-growing digital services that are now ubiquitous.

While people are returning to public transport, traffic congestion is back and freight transport continues to increase in many cities, spitting harmful pollutants and particulate matter (PM) into the air and further impeding the achievement of key climate and sustainability goals. All of this is happening, ironically, as we fight a virus with major respiratory impacts. Essentially, we have been promoting the destruction of our air and more sedentary lifestyles through unsustainable transport to somehow, protect people from ending up on ventilators.

Fight Against the Virus, Not Our Future

So, what can be learned from a nexus approach to public health and transport policy? Well, the lessons are simple: look to sustainable, low-carbon transport and mobility solutions as means of unlocking public health benefits. How can this be done? The tools exist, and measures already taken around the world have proven successful.

The first step is to recognise that the internal combustion engine destroys the air we breathe, breaks up communities due to the sprawling roads they perpetuate, and prevents the blossoming of safe, active forms of mobility, like walking and cycling. Already, governments and other stakeholders all over the world have come to see the need to hastily do away with vehicles that run on fossil fuels, with a key multilateral declaration of the UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow calling for a transition to zero-emission cars and vans.

But this is not enough. Beyond recognising the problem and seeking to electrify private vehicles, there need to be solutions where multiple modes of transport and mobility are prioritised. This means providing safe, dedicated spaces for people to walk, cycle, and use public transport – a compact city where electrification of private vehicles is but one measure to transform transport, support the purification of our air and get people moving. In this scenario, where public funding is used to make cities more liveable for all, not just those with cars, public health can be greatly improved.

The reasons are simple: fewer cars and more public transport, means more breathable air. More people walking and cycling, means a happier, healthier population. Cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, Mexico City, Mexico, and many others are working to make this a reality – improving lives and livelihoods and seeking to make healthy, sustainable, low-carbon transport a reality for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Leaving No One (Or No Community) Behind?

Now, an analysis of my hometown, New York City, reveals how oftentimes, the worst impacts of air pollution from cars and trucks can also be an issue of class. A recent study by The Real Urban Emissions Initiative (TRUE) finds that fewer than ‘10% of diesel trucks on the road are responsible for more than two-thirds of the fleet’s tailpipe PM2.5 emissions’, and that people of colour, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, are breathing in more PM2.5 from these trucks than average. This reality lays bare the need to not only make our city centres safe, walkable, and clean, but that each community needs to be considered in the transport-health nexus. Transport and public health are truly issues of social and economic justice.

And so, while humanity continues to grapple with major global crises, it is time to take seriously the needs of our communities and begin to apply systems-thinking to how policy is made. Transport and public health are but one piece in this puzzle, and while so many solutions to our problems already exist or are within arm’s reach, governments and other key stakeholders continue to drag their feet or propose gradual change where system transformation is needed.

Protecting people and planet, combatting COVID, and making our cities safer, healthier, and more resilient requires a new approach to public policy. Let’s get to work!

Christopher Dekki