Putting health at the heart of transport policies

European governments negotiate Charter on Transport, Environment and Health.

provided by The World Health Organization

he World Health Organization is concerned that the health impact of transport policies has been recognized too slowly and without regard to the cumulative and combined effects of the various health risks that road traffic presents.

"We can no longer ignore the mass of evidence that transport and planning policies are having major effects on health, through road accidents, fumes, noise and our ever-diminishing physical activity," said J.E. Asvall, WHO Regional Director for Europe. "Through cooperation, we need to ensure that government policies in the European Region take health into account to maximize the health and economic benefits. I think that most people care more about their health than about their cars."

By adopting the Charter at the London Conference in June 1999, Member States will agree on principles, targets and a strategy for action to reduce the human health costs of transport. The health targets will be on air quality, injury, physical activity and noise.

The Charter calls for better coordination on environment, transport and health policies; tools to be developed for integrated environmental impact assessment of transport strategies; monitoring systems to be implemented; and environmental health guidelines for transport to be produced. It points out that we are all paying for our transport with our health, and this in turn involves hidden economic costs. External costs linked to transport have been estimated as 4.1 percent of the gross domestic product of the European Union. These costs include health and congestion but leave out the substantial savings that could be made in health costs by allowing largely sedentary populations a real choice of modes of safe transport.

The Charter proposes a wide range of local and national measures that will help to make a difference, involving transport and land-use planning, infrastructure investment programs and policy decisions. These include a commitment to raising the attractiveness of public transport and cycling and walking, and taking special account of groups at extra risk, such as children and old and frail people.

The Charter highlights particularly the benefits of the simplest but most neglected modes of transport: cycling and walking. There is good evidence that, if the sedentary population had half an hour per day of cycling or walking, the prevalence of heart disease, obesity and diabetes would be halved. Most countries do not take walking and cycling into account at all in their transport and planning policies, and some countries do not consider them to be modes of transport at all.

What is needed is an adequate infrastructure for safe walking and cycling. Increased cycling and walking can not only reduce dramatically the incidence of some of the most common diseases, such as heart disease, but can also reduce congestion, air pollution and global climate change.

The full supporting conference documents on transport, environment and health can be found at www.who.dk/London99, which also includes details of the other environment and health issues addressed by the Conference. www.who.it/london_conference/teh.htm.

For more information, contact: WHO Regional Office for Europe, Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark, Tel.: +45 39 17 13 36 or anawho.dk. Press releases on World Wide Web site: www.who.dk.