The benefits of walking and cycling quantified

New research has highlighted the massive health gains of ditching the car for short trips.

A new Otago University study found walking or biking could be just as beneficial to Kiwis' health as ongoing tobacco tax increases, as well as reducing carbon emissions.

Lead author Anja Mizdrak believes concerns about injury rates tend to dominate discussions about transport - but that shouldn't be the case.

"The majority of the health benefits were the result of increased physical activity, and I think that's something we really need to bear in mind when making policy decisions around transport."

The researchers studied the effects of replacing all car trips under 1km with walking, and all car trips between 1km and 5km with a mix of walking and cycling. The study says nearly 80 percent of all self-reported trips are made by car, and only half of Kiwi adults get the recommended amount of physical activity.

"Road transport also makes up 17.3 percent of the nation's gross greenhouse gas emissions, so it directly affects injury rates, physical activity and air pollution, and indirectly affects health through climate change."

If 100 percent of trips by every current Kiwi were converted, it would be the equivalent of taking 64,000 fewer flights to the UK, reduce transport emissions by 1.4 percent and save up to $2.1 billion in healthcare costs over our lifespans. 

"We really need to think about what we can do to make the environment more conducive to making those short trips actively - be that by improving cycle lanes, or people having facilities closer-by," said Dr Mizdrak.

Even replacing just a few trips would make a difference.

"If people swapped their car for walking or biking for just one quarter of short trips, the health gains would be comparable to the health gain we have estimated previously for 10 percent per annum tobacco tax increases from 2011 to 2025," said co-author Prof Tony Blakely.

"Predicting the future is never easy, but that is implicitly what we do as a society when we make policy decisions that change our cities and lifestyles for decades into the future.

"Our research suggests that making walking and cycling easier and preferred over cars for short trips is likely to be beneficial on all three counts of health gain, health system cost savings and greenhouse gas emissions. This evidence needs consideration in future policy making and urban design."

The study was published Thursday in journal PLOS One.