Monday, April 29, 2013

Health Impacts of Transportation in Amsterdam

Over the past 30 years, Amsterdam’s transportation polices have focused on making bicycling and walking safer and more attractive.  Over 40% of trips in Amsterdam are now completed either by walking or cycling. The health benefits of active transportation have been well documented in numerous studies and, unsurprisingly, the Netherlands has one of the highest life expectancies in the world (80.2 years). While many factors affect life expectancy, the high proportion of the population that engages in active transportation on a daily basis is undoubtedly significant.

A 2010 study titled Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? specifically investigated the health effects of cycling in the Netherlands. This study weighed the health benefits of cycling against potential dangers such as accidents and increased exposure to air pollution. The study concluded that the benefits of cycling outweigh the negatives ninefold. It also found that switching from driving to cycling as the primary mode of transportation increases one’s life expectancy from three to fourteen months. As one would expect, the study also found the benefits of switching to cycling are significantly higher for members of the population who do not already exercise regularly.  

With the link between active transportation and improved health well established, it is important to briefly look at the policies Amsterdam enacted to promote biking and walking.  Amsterdam’s campaign to increase bicycling and walking started in the 1970s with a simple premise: the streets do not belong to automobiles. The first phase of Amsterdam's program was massive investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Sidewalks throughout the central city were widened and the network of bicycle paths and trails was greatly expanded. A number of streets that allowed both bicycles and cars were changed to give bicycles the permanent right-of-way. Traffic calming was also instituted in many residential neighborhoods, allowing cars, bikes, and pedestrians to coexist safely on the streets. Amsterdam’s policies even extend to young children, with mandates for school children to receive extensive education about walking and cycling safely in an urban environment.

Overall, since 1975 pedestrian and cycling deaths in the Netherlands have fallen 73% and 57%, respectively. Over the same time, bicycling and walking trips as a share of total trips have nearly doubled. As a result, Amsterdam is now one of the safest cities to drive, walk, and bicycle in. These statistics demonstrate just how effective the polices of the Netherlands and Amsterdam have been in reclaiming their streets from cars and improving their societal health.  

Sedentary lifestyles have become one of the largest health threats to developed countries. Promoting active transportation is an effective way to combat this problem, but there are a number of barriers that must be confronted. This include addressing the real and perceived dangers of walking and cycling in auto-dominated areas. Amsterdam’s policies to improve traffic safety and promote alternatives modes of transportation provide an excellent blueprint for cities looking to increase active transportation. 


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