Road Transport and Health

Post by Prof. Jenny Mindell, THSG Co-Chair (Science)

Transport provides many benefits

Access: We often talk about the harms that motorised traffic causes and forget about the benefits! Transport policies should help people travel from where they are to where they need or want to be – ideally, without causing problems for other people. Travel provides access to goods, services, and people. This is important for a good quality of life and for health and wellbeing. In particular, travel provides access to employment, education, shops, health and other services, social support networks, and recreation.

Physical activity: Walking, cycling, rollerblading and scooting (but not e-scooters) are not only forms of transport but also provide physical activity. Being active when traveling is an easy way to meet the recommendations for physical activity (150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes weekly of vigorous exercise).

Public transport (train, tram, light rail, bus, coach, cable car) is often included as active travel because most people walk or cycle to and/or from the station or bus stop.

Active travel. © J.Mindell

Green and blue spaces (i.e. places with vegetation or water) are good for mental wellbeing. Transport may help people reach these places. A well-designed route can help people pass through green spaces or alongside blue spaces during their journeys to other places.

However, transport also has a wide range of harmful effects on health

Contamination: The World Health Organisation reports that outdoor air pollution causes 4 million deaths worldwide each year. Much of this pollution comes from motor vehicles.

Contamination: Heavy metals from vehicle exhaust pipes run off the tarmac roads and contaminate the water supply.

Cacophony: Noise from traffic is almost universal. It raises blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Road traffic. Image by Al Gг from Pixabay

Community severance occurs where the speed and/or amount of traffic makes it difficult for people to cross the road. It also occurs due to transport infrastructure, e.g. a motorway or a railway line. This stops people from obtaining the goods and services and meeting the people needed for a healthy life.

Carbon emissions: Transport is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global climate change and its impacts on health.

Crashes and collisions are the most important cause of death in children and young people. Fatality rates vary most by age, sex, and deprivation rather than by travel mode.

Couch potatoes. Car travel provides less than 1 minute of physical activity per trip, compared with an average of 16 minutes for walking and 18 minutes for cycling in the UK. (Source)

Congestion is another issue that will be discussed in a future blog.

Future blogs will discuss each of these benefits and harms in more detail. Also important is to consider how having poor mental and/or physical health affects the travel options people have.


In a car-dependent society, it tends to be the wealthier people who gain the benefits of travel. Disadvantaged groups are more likely to be exposed to the harms from motor vehicles. In a double whammy, they are also often more susceptible to the harmful effects. Future blogs will also consider the many ways that transport modes and travel policies contribute to – or reduce – socioeconomic and health inequalities. Where we live and how these places are designed are really important influences on our travel options and their impacts on health and inequalities.

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