About transport and health
This section provides information on how transport impacts on human health in New Zealand.
On this page
The importance of transport in our lives
How does transport affect health?
Road traffic injuries and deaths
Air pollution from road transport
Active transport (walking and cycling)
Noise pollution from road transport
The burden of disease from road transport in New Zealand
Calls for a more sustainable transport system
Barriers limiting the use of active and public transport
Environmental Health Indicators for transport
Transport plays an important role in New Zealand society. Transport connects us to healthcare services, education, family, community, shops and recreation. We rely on transport to get from one point to another, move goods around, get to work, and for everyday life.
Cars are the main form of transport used in New Zealand. New Zealand has the highest vehicle ownership rate per capita in the OECD .
In 2011-14, New Zealanders spent the vast majority (79%) of their total travel time in motor vehicles. Much less travel time was spent walking (13%), on public transport (4%) or cycling (2%) .
Transport can impact on our health through a number of ways, including:
- road traffic injuries and deaths
- air pollution
- noise pollution.
A lack of transport can also lead to social isolation and barriers to accessing services, including healthcare. Motorised transport also relies heavily on fossil fuels, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when burned.
By contrast, active transport (such as walking and cycling) and public transport have positive health benefits, such as on mental well-being, physical activity, and cardiovascular health .
Worldwide, road crashes are estimated to result in 1.3 million deaths annually, and are a major contributor to the global burden of disease .
Road traffic crashes cause several hundred deaths in New Zealand each year (Figure 1), and many more injuries. Younger people tend to have the highest rates of road crashes and deaths .
Motor vehicles contribute to air pollution in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland . Vehicle emissions from burning petrol and diesel include particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), and nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gases.
Exposure to particulate matter can lead to chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and low birthweight [7, 8, 9, 10]. Nitrogen dioxide is associated with acute respiratory effects such as asthma symptoms, especially in children [8, 11].
In 2006, there were 256 deaths in New Zealand due to air pollution (PM10 ) from motor vehicles, according to the HAPINZ study .
Active forms of transport, such as walking and cycling, have a range of environmental benefits, including producing no air pollution, noise pollution or greenhouse gases.
Walking or cycling for transport helps integrate physical activity into everyday life. The health benefits of active transport include :
- increased physical activity
- improved mental health
- reduced risk of diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
A study found that moving 5% of short urban car trips to cycling in New Zealand would result in 116 fewer deaths through increased physical activity, six fewer deaths due to local air pollution from vehicles, and an additional five cyclist deaths from road crashes, each year .
Active forms of transport also have economic benefits in New Zealand, saving $4.27 per km for each new walker, and $2.14 per km for each new cyclist, according to a 2008 transport cost-benefit analysis .
Using public transport can also bring health benefits. Public transport increases physical activity, as it often includes physical activity as part of the journey.
Public transport use also reduces air pollution, is safer than travelling by car, and can improve mental health [16, 17]. At average occupancy, public transport produces fewer harmful emissions than private vehicles .
Road traffic noise can also affect health, through annoyance, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease [18, 19]. Noise pollution from traffic can also affect people's sleep patterns and impair cognitive performance.
Most road traffic noise is caused by motorised vehicles, in particular the sound of tyres on the road, as well as engines, brakes and exhaust systems . People more exposed to road-related noise include those living close to busy roads, and low-income groups .
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 1.0-1.6 million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in western European countries .
We recently estimated that road transport was responsible for 650 deaths in New Zealand in 2012 . These deaths included:
- 308 deaths due to traffic crashes
- 218 deaths due to particulate matter (PM10)
- 65 deaths due to nitrogen dioxide exposure
- 59 deaths due to noise pollution.
Additionally, an estimated 40 deaths were avoided through active transport, through increased physical activity.
Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the population and ensuring a good quality of life, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs or quality of life .
The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine has called for the 'development of a sustainable transport environment where active travel and public transport are prioritised and represent realistic and safe alternatives to travelling by car' .
Use of active transport and public transport can be limited by a number of barriers, including concerns about road safety, a lack of safe places to travel, and poor urban design.
Traffic speeds and volumes can affect how people choose to travel. For example, one of the major barriers to cycling remains the real (and perceived) risk of injuries. Higher levels of walking and cycling tend to occur in areas with lower traffic volumes . A study in London showed that reducing speed limits to 20 miles per hour (30 km/h) reduced road injuries by 42% .
Public transport also needs to be reliable, affordable, frequent and easy to use, for people to use it. In smaller towns and rural areas, public transport is often not available.
You can find the following indicators on our EHI website:
- Number of motor vehicles
- Main mode of transport to work on Census day
- Household travel time by mode of transport
- Active transport to and from school
- Unmet need for GP services due to a lack of transport
- Road traffic injury deaths and hospitalisations
2. Ministry of Transport. (2014). New Zealand Household Travel Survey: Regional results (3-year moving average). Available online: http://nzdotstat.stats.govt.nz/wbos/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TABLECODE7432 (accessed 2 March 2017).
3. British Medical Association. (2012). Healthy transport = healthy lives. http://bma.org.uk/transport
4. Bhalla, K., Schotten, M., Cohen, A., et al. (2014). Transport for health: The global burden of disease from motorized road transport. Global Road Safety Facility, The World Bank; Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, United States of America.
6. Kuschel G, Metcalfe J, Wilton E, Guria J, Hales S, Rolfe K, et al. (2012). Updated Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand Study. Volume 1: Summary report. Prepared by Emission Impossible and others for Health Research Council of New Zealand, Ministry of Transport, Ministry for the Environment, and NZ Transport Agency. Available online: http://www.hapinz.org.nz/
7. Beelen, R.; Rasschou-Nielsen, O.; Staffogia, M.; Andersen, Z.J. et al. (2014). Effects of long-term exposure to air pollution on natural-cause mortality: An analysis of 22 European cohorts within the multicentre ESCAPE project. Lancet 383, 785–795.
10. Stafoggia, M.; Cesaroni, G.; Peters, A.; Andersen, Z.J. et al. (2014). Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and incidence of cerebrovascular events: Results from 11 European cohorts within the ESCAPE project. Environ. Health Perspect. 122, 919–925.
16. Litman, T. (2010). Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Available online: http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/APTA_Health_Benefits_Litman.pdf (accessed 10 May 2017).
17. Rissel, C., Curac, N., Greenaway, M., Bauman, A. (2012). Physical activity associated with public transport use—a review and modelling of potential benefits. Int J Environ Res Public Health 9(7): 2454-78.
21. Tiesler, C.M., Birk, M., Thiering, E., Kohlböck, G., et al. (2013). Exposure to road traffic noise and children’s behavioural problems and sleep disturbance: results from the GINIplus and LISAplus studies. Environ Res. 123: 1–8.
25. Briggs, D., Mason, K., Borman, B. (2016). Rapid assessment of environmental health impacts for policy support: The example of road transport in New Zealand. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13: 61.