Eight reasons to slam the door on your car commute, based on the science

Commute week: The arguments for ditching your four-wheel addiction are overwhelming, writes public health expert Caroline Shaw

Commuting to work, study or school bookends most people’s days. Love it or hate it, it takes time. According to the NZ Time Use Survey we spend on average 46 minutes per day traveling  to work and 52 travelling to education or training  (this is national data and a bit old now, so probably doesn’t capture the pain of current Auckland commutes). This is apparently about the same amount of time as we spend on household cleaning and personal hygiene and grooming.  But only slightly more than we spend on pet care (my cat is definitely suffering from neglect).

Most of us (82%) commute by car; we often don’t have a choice. Thanks to New Zealand being generally quite awesome at collecting data, we can see on the graph below that there has been a long term pattern of decreasing walking, cycling and taking public transport to work. I didn’t put cars on this graph as it dwarfs everything else, but car trips to work increased from 62% in 1971 to 82% in 2013.

Source: Census 1971-2013

We should care about this because there are a heap of really good reasons why we ought to ditch car commuting and instead walk, cycle, e-bike, take buses, trains, light rail, push or e-scooters, skateboard, or take ferries.

1. It will make you happier

Getting out of cars can make you happy! Public transport can be a very social activity, bringing you in contact with more people than just sitting alone in your car listening to Mike and his dire views on the world. Making even small connections with people in your neighbourhood or on your commute is important for a sense of belonging and your health and wellbeing.  The physical activity that goes along with cycling and walking is really good for mental health. People who are regularly active are less anxious and less depressed. For people who have depression or anxiety vigorous physical activity, like running, fast walking and cycling, may be as effective as anti-depressants.  We have a mental health crisis in this country. Getting out of our cars may an ingredient in the secret sauce of a mentally well New Zealand.

2. You will be healthier

Increasing your physical activity through active commuting (bikes, brisk walking etc) or the walking associated with taking public transport can decrease your chance of getting (and in some cases dying from) some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, strokes and dementia. The reduction is somewhere between 10 to 40% depending on the study (as these are common conditions these reductions are potentially pretty large in the scheme of research findings). The best thing is, it doesn’t matter what age you take it up, you get health benefits from the increased activity. Also, even if you already have conditions such as high blood pressure, or diabetes, or if you are a smoker, if you are physically active you will have less chance of dying early  than those who have those things but are not active.

3. Clean up your lungs

Moving to public transport, cycling or walking results in less air pollution in cities. Rather depressingly NZ research shows that at least 250 people a year die from air pollution that comes from cars. Babies and older people are most at risk from dying from air pollution, so even if you are not producing the pollution you can still suffer the consequences of it. Sometimes people are concerned that if they take up cycling or walking they will be more exposed to air pollution (from breathing hard while riding or walking next to dirty diesel buses).  However a clever bit of work recently showed that for a half hour of cycling a day the PM2.5 (that’s a very small particle of pollution that causes health problems) level would need to be 95µg/m3 for the risks of air pollution to outweigh the benefits of PA. Even the more polluted towns in NZ do not have levels anywhere near this.

4. Save the planet

Getting out of cars and onto other forms of transport, particularly public transport, decreases carbon emissions. Even if the public transport is powered by fossil fuels it is still, (assuming you have a reasonably full bus), a less carbon intensive way to travel than a car. If Auckland had the same levels of cycling, walking and public transport use as Wellington, light vehicle carbon emissions would decrease by about 20%.  When the Productivity Commission says we need to have more cycling and walking and public transport as part of our response to climate change, you know these are not political issues; they are shared human ones that need acting on.

5. Spend less time in A&E

Riding to work is 530 times safer than playing rugby and 4-5 times safer than skiing in terms of getting an injury that you need to go to hospital for. And if we all get out of our cars and walk, cycle or take public transport we will all be safer.

6. Your jeans will remain comfortable

There is some very recent research that shows that cycling to work keeps your weight stable or, if you take it up, may cause you to lose a modest amount of weight. Conversely, if you change from cycling to driving a car you better prepare to buy a larger pair of jeans.

7. Feel ‘the flow’ at work more (maybe)

This one is a bit more speculative but people who cycle to work may have less sickness absence than those who don’t. You can certainly see a persuasive argument that if people have less diabetes or less asthma that sickness absence may decrease and productivity increase.

8. Make your neighbourhood nicer

Let’s be honest, neighbourhoods with fewer cars are nicer. No-one ever said ‘what this street/suburb needs to make it more attractive and nicer to live in is more cars’. Fewer cars mean more space for trees, parks, and places to socialise for children and adults. It’s probably no coincidence that Wellington, with the highest level of public transport use and walking, has the lowest level of households that own multiple cars.

Many of you will have noticed that quite a lot of the good things about getting out of your cars are related to physical activity. I can hear people saying why don’t they just go to the gym? Or play rugby? Because these things are hard to fit into our busy lives. Only half of us manage to meet the guidelines for physical activity each week (which really are the bare minimum for health) and that number has not improved for almost 2 decades (see below). If the gym or club sports really worked they would have done so by now. Cunningly though, what we do have is that 46 minutes per day we spend commuting and we know that people who cycle or walk to work are much more likely to meet these physical activity guidelines. (And, no, people who take up this form of transport don’t tend to offset it by reducing other physical activity.)

Source: NZ Health Survey 2002-2017

Cars are a really useful technology, and there are some situations for some people where they are really essential. But we have got to the point where cars (and their space needs) are controlling us and our cities, instead of us controlling them.  Commuting without cars is fun and healthy for us and the environment.  We need to be given a real choice to skateboard, bike, walk, take the bus (or whatever) and do more of it, not just to be forced to use cars because it is too hard to do anything else.

Disclosure: I own a car and use it, including sometimes for commuting. I also walk or bike to work some days. Biking is the quickest way to get to work, even accounting for the Wellington wind.

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