A recent report from a team of researchers based at the University of Otago has found that our use of cars is harming both our health and our environment. The report, titled Turning the Tide, claims that urgent steps are needed to encourage New Zealanders to walk, cycle, or use public transport. Oscar Perress spoke with Melody Smith about changing the way we think about cars, and how we can lead healthier lives.

Melody Smith is an Associate Professor in Nursing at the University of Auckland. She is an expert on active transport for children.

Oscar Perress: What do you see as the reporting meaning overall?

Melody Smith: I think it is a very important report. It is our first call to action of this type for the country, which we really need. We have got to change the way we think about transport because our current model of a car-centric culture is not sustainable and it does affect mental and environmental health. I think the things that were really great about the report were the fact that there wasn’t one solution presented, it is a very comprehensive understanding of multiple factors that need to be taken and multiple changes that need to occur if we are actually going to make a shift. We really love our cars, we have designed our streets and our neighbourhoods to prioritise cars over humans and so it is not going to be an overnight shift and we all play a role and have a responsibility to make sure that change does occur.

OP: What do you see as spurring our nation’s ongoing love for the car?

MS: I haven’t done a lot of research into the social relationships with cars but I certainly know about the environment and how we have constructed our environment and how it is conducive to car use. I do a lot of work with children and it is very hard for young people or people who are trying to get around in a wheelchair to get around actively, whereas the environments that we provide for people really says to them ‘Getting a car is the easiest way to get around’. We all know we have challenges with our public transport system in terms of being able to get from A to B easily and positive shifts are occurring in that area, but I think we are all living in this environment that actually makes car travel the easiest mode of travel and so I think sometimes there is a culture of car use. But I think it is the downstream impact of the environment that we have created.

OP: What effect does our affinity for the car have on our health and our behaviour?

MS: In terms of the detrimental health impacts, the most obvious one is the physical risks. You have spoken about the increase in car use, but alongside that we have had a seventy percent increase in deaths and serious injuries in the last five or so years; we had our deadliest year on our roads since 2009 in 2018. But then there are all the other downstream impacts as well. We have the fact if you are in a car you are not walking or cycling or being active and so the risk of being insufficiently active on your health goes up. Between seventeen and forty percent of our young people are considered insufficiently active for health, so we have a good sixty percent of our young people who are not getting enough physical actively and obviously active transport is a solution to be able to increase that. Then there is also all the issues of air pollution and so on as well. So the negative impacts are just so wide-reaching and quite overwhelming.

OP: In the report the authors call upon national and local governments to set targets for the proportion of trips made on foot by bicycle and public transport. Do you think that the target bought up in the report are either achievable or aspirational?

MS: I think it can be debated that actually the recommendations aren’t going to be efficient to generate the changes that we want to see. I actually think they are ambitious personally, just knowing how long it takes for a behavioural change to occur and also for environmental change to occur. So I think they are both at the same time ambitious and insufficient but I would like to think that they are closer to realistic than not realistic because we need to see these changes occur.

OP: What do you see would be the important steps in getting these changes to occur?

MS: From the research that we do, one of the most immediate things that needs to change is the way that we design and build our streets. As mentioned, we have built for the car and we know that the way that our neighbourhoods and environments are built are huge barriers to people being able to get out and participate in their community. So there has been a whole lot of work done recently in Auckland around safer speeds and ironically there has been a bit of an uproar around suggestions of reducing our local neighbourhood streets down to thirty kilometres per hour. And when you look at the data around the dangers of being hit at sixty kilometres per hour you have got a ninety percent chance of death compared to thirty kilometres per hour, whereas that drops to ten percent for thirty kilometres. So we are looking at an urgent need to change our street environments in particular would be my first very strong recommendation.

OP: The average time New Zealanders walk as a mode of transport has dropped from ten minutes to eight minutes per day. What effect does this two minute difference have?

MS: Proportionately we have a highly inactive population overall so any shift is important. And I think it is also very important to recognise that statistics like this are presented at the group level, so you will see variation across that, it doesn’t mean that every individual would have changed by two minutes a day. For some people there might be an increase of ten minutes a day and that is extremely meaningful particularly for those people who are at the lower level of activity. So when you think about increasing walking in particular, it is an activity that is accessible to many and is one of the least threatening forms of activity. So I would say that two minutes overall at the group level is meaningful in terms of a population shift in health and wellbeing, but also it is important to recognise that for many people there would be greater increases and that is a really important thing particularly for those people who might have been insufficiently active at the beginning or are just starting out on their physical activity journey.

This interview was originally aired on The Wire. To hear the audio and download this interview click here.

See Also:

Q+A: Is it time to stop using cars?