WalkSydney October Newsletter
The battle between walking and pollution
This WalkSydney newsletter takes a look at the relationship between walking and the pollution generated from private automobiles, and provides an update on WalkSydney’s recent activities,
Walking and pollution
One of the reasons we all support walking and why the movement to prioritise walking is becoming so strong is because it addresses so many of the critical issues of our age: efficient transport, justice, sustainability, the liveability of cities, and the health and wellbeing of people within them. But what stops us from walking more? Why do we have to form an organisation to promote walking in Sydney?
In this newsletter, I will look at how pollution from cars affects walking and restricts so many of the benefits it might otherwise bring.
It is common for pro-walking and cycling groups to state that they are not anti-car, and indeed the car is an incredible invention that offers extraordinary amenity and convenience. However, there is a real tension between realising the benefits of walking (in terms of health, wellbeing, efficiency, and economy) and the dominance of the car in modern cities. We need to be honest about the factors involved.
The combustion engine that drives almost all private vehicles is a major source of climate emissions both in Australia and internationally. The 2018 IPCC report argues that we have ten years to massively reduce emissions. All levers need to be pulled to achieve this; lower speeds, shifting to electric, massive increases in public transport, prioritising walking and cycling over shorter distances. Large investments in roading projects like WestConnex are not only lost opportunities for building better non-carbon intensive modes of transport, but they also lock in existing habits for another generation, and we don’t have that long.
Transport is the fastest-growing source of emissions in the country and private cars make up half of this. A 2017 Climate Council report says that: “Australia lags well behind the global pack on tackling transport emissions. Australia’s per capita transport emissions are 45% higher than the OECD average.” The report argues that this problem is caused by a lack of standards, long travel distances, low investment into and use of public transport.
While climate pollutants do not directly impact on the experience of the city in the same way that noise and air pollution do, increased heat from climate change does threaten to make parts of Australian cities uninhabitable, and heated roads themselves create more pollution. This risks creating a negative spiral in which more people travel in cars to avoid the heat. We need to break this cycle.
Localised air pollution is another major problem stemming from car use, and new research suggesting a much bigger impact than previously thought. In the UK an estimated 40,000 people per year are killed by air pollution, ten times the amount of drug overdoses. Melbourne University's Energy Institute has developed research suggesting that the death toll from air pollution caused by cars is greater than car crashes and impacts, for example, in 2018 1715 died from the former and 1224 from the latter. To put these figures in context, Australia has had 904 deaths from COVID this year. Fatalities from air pollution isn’t just one of those aging diseases affecting the elderly, but one that impacts on life long learning and health damage to children. Recent research also identifies a link between depression and even low levels of pollution.
Air pollution is a problem for walkers (although this research suggests the exercise from walking and cycling is still worth the risk) and those of us that might want to spend time outside in cities, but also impacts people driving in traffic and users of public transport.
There is also preliminary evidence forming around a link between COVID morbidity and pollution from cars.
Technologists will frequently cite electric cars as being the solution to the pollution of the combustion engine. However, there are problems with this. Firstly, Australia is moving too slowly in the transition to electric cars, and more critically, cars produce other highly dangerous types of pollution. Over 60% of the air pollution caused by cars isn’t from the engine (tires, break pads etc).
While electric vehicles will provide some help, it is only by reducing the total amount of traffic and lowering speeds that we will reduce pollution, and make cities more enjoyable for walking and public transport.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report published this year says that “Long-term exposure to noise can cause a variety of health effects including annoyance, sleep disturbance, negative effects on the cardiovascular and metabolic system, as well as cognitive impairment in children.” The report argues that noise pollution from roads is the second most harmful environmental problem behind air pollution from cars.
It’s notable that the damage caused by cars is caused less by the occasional loud cars, and more from the exposure to sustained background road noise above 50 decibels. Levels which over 65% of Europeans and over 90% of Americans are exposed to.
Walking is in direct conflict with noisy traffic. Busy roads are unhealthy to be near, unpleasant to be around, and induce stress from the constant activations of fight or flight mechanisms. Walking, alongside cycling, and better public transportation are key partners in the transport and mobility revolution we desperately need.
The return of the city
Local noise pollution and air pollution are not existential global threats in the same way that climate change is. However, they illustrate how we have allowed our cities to become entirely dominated by the logic and the aesthetic and experience of noisy, polluting cars. It doesn’t need to be this way.
When taken individually, some of these issues can point to other solutions. More often than not, short term solutions involve small adaptations to existing dominance of the private automobile: put up fences to keep pedestrians and roads separated, or replace combustion engines with electric. When we look at walking holistically in relation to the broader set of issues to be addressed, it’s clear there is a central conflict with the dominance of the car and cities being great places to walk and live.
One of the small benefits of COVID is, transformation in cities like London, Barcelona, Oslo, and Paris are showing us that large parts of cities can be shifted to prioritise walking with great success; pointing to improvements in economic performance, improved health and wellbeing and the return of conviviality to lively active public places. ARUP recently published a report summarising the 50 benefits of walkability in cities.
Recent proposals to create an 80km walking route from the CBD to Parramatta and to transform the central city by replacing 800km of less used roads with pedestrian zones have received positive publicity recently, and match the ambition of our recent idea to implement Barcelona style pedestrian precincts in the central city.
In a recent SMH article Elizabeth Farrelly makes the case for slow cities and the prioritising of walking and cycling:
“Living close enough to walk to school, shops or movies doesn’t demand towers. Even three-storey villages allow us to shrink our physical footprint, rebuilding wilderness as Attenborough prescribes. They mean we share more – pools and libraries, bars and gardens – which is fun and connective. And in all these things, they limit climate change, restoring the jungles, icecaps and oceans on which our lives depend. But there are also immediate benefits. A good walking city doesn’t just allow walking but incentivises it with charm and pokability. A certain picturesqueness is implied; nooks and crannies, surprise and delight, nature tangled with culture.”
A better city is possible, we just need to make it.
WalkSydney is now a voting member of The International Federation of Pedestrians (IFP) and a member of the peak body Cycling and Walking Australia (CWANZ).
The WalkSydney AGM took place last month. At the AGM the board was (re) elected with a few small changes. We’d like to thank two members who have stepped off the board after a great year of strong effort and leadership helping to establish the organisation. Special thanks to David Levinson who is staying on the board but stepping down from the President position. David led the establishment of the organisation and 18 months later we are a registered charity, have over 50 members, an active newsletter, and have been accepted as the peak advocacy group for walking in Sydney.
A full list of the current board and positions can be found here.
At the AGM we discussed some broad goals for the year including:
Developing a relationship with and supporting Sydney’s Aboriginal Land Councils
Supporting membership activities and building the walking community
Campaigns – eg. 30km/hr areas, improving traffic signal treatment for pedestrians
Strategic partnering with organisations to promote walking projects
Produce a document that profiles key walking projects and opportunities in Sydney
Thank you for your support and we look forward to walking alongside each of you as we improve conditions for walking in Sydney.
Join WalkSydney and get involved with action and ideas to make Sydney safe and pleasant for pedestrians. We advocate for improving the walkability of our city. People-friendly streets are the foundation of healthy, inclusive, connected, and sustainable communities.
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