Mot-clé : Human scale

“Zero emissions” trips with many underlying benefits

As the natural way of moving around, walking is by far the main type of active transport. Add the bicycle to that, and you get two cheap and efficient means of transportation. Since they tap on human energy alone, there is obviously no GHG emissions involved. And there isn’t much tradeoff in using them either, since they actually are excellent alternatives to other transportation modes: indeed, almost half of all daily commutes are less than 3 km long (a 30 minutes walk or a 12 minutes bike ride), and 25% of them are 1,5 km or less (a 15 minutes walk) [1]. It is also worth noting that city traffic conditions make the average speed a car can reach on par, or even less, to that of a typical cyclist. Despite this, motorized transportation still is the prefered choice, even for short trips – in the greater Montreal area for example, 55% of trips of less than 1,6 km are motorized [2].

Walking and biking have individual and collective positive effects on various aspects of our lives. For one, they make an overwhelming economic case, first for the user, but also for society since the pressure on the road infrastructure – and thus the cost of its maintenance – is vastly reduced. But even if for some strange reason you should cast aside these arguments, nobody can justify ignoring the health-related ones.

Public health and active transportation

Of increasing concern are the health problems related to physical inactivity and car dependency, issues for which a widespread adoption of active transportation modes would be an important part of the solution. In Canada, overall inactivity-related health costs were valued at $5.3 billion in 2001, including $1.6 billion in direct costs for the health care system [3]. And it just so happens that public health experts now formally recognize the benefits of active commuting in preventing weight-related health problems.

  • Obesity prevalence decreases by 4.8% [4] for each km of walking per day;
  • In Canada, sedentary people make use of the health care system 38% more frequently than those considered physically active [5].

Using active transportation modes also alleviates road congestion, reduces air pollution and improves road safety. Again, social costs speak volumes:

  • Air pollution costs Quebec $1.3 billion every year, 97% of which is related to health problems [6];
  • As for road accidents, their cost is estimated at $3.9 billion per year [7].

Despite numerous benefits, walking and biking are frequently cast aside as viable transportation options, and the fact that they can’t always rely on a conducive environment doesn’t help.

Planning communities to promote active transportation

Urban form and the way streets and public spaces are planned impact individual transportation choices. Without the support of a safe and pleasant environment in which to bike or walk, active transportation cannot measure up to the feelings of comfort and convenience the car usually generates. A study by the Department of Transportation of the Washington State demonstrates that residents of neighborhoods lacking pedestrian amenities walk on average 3,2 times less than those living in more pedestrian-friendly ones.

Streets with poor amenities make it unpleasant to walk and risky to cross – Source: / Dan Burden

When it comes to putting favorable conditions in place, communities have various options at their disposal:

  • Develop human-scale neighborhoods: narrow streets, closely-spaced intersections, building entrances directly accessible from the street, quality street furnitures, etc.;
  • Increase the mix of activities in order to offer a variety of goods and services within walking distance;
  • Set up traffic calming measures and improve safety and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Put cycling infrastructure in place: bikeways, bike racks, etc. Incentives for companies to install showers, lockers and other amenities are good too.

Improved comfort and safety for pedestrians and cyclists are generally compatible, and in some cases even mutually reinforcing.

A pedestrian-friendly commercial street in Durham, New Hampshire – Source: / Dan Burden

Indeed, a pedestrian-friendly environment is usually associated with lower vehicle speeds, which in turn allow cyclists to move along safely without the need for bikeways. In the same way, cycling infrastructure circumscribes the space the car occupies and thus tends to give pedestrians a more pleasant environment.

Laneways open to different modes of transportation in Vauban – Source: Vivre en Ville

Fair and active communities

In order to meet everyone’s needs, communities should always keep in mind the importance of active transportation in general and walking in particular, since everyone, including car drivers, becomes a pedestrian at some point. Questions that should thus be asked are: is the neighborhood or city offering goods and services accessible within walking or biking distance, or via public transit? Are comfort and safety conditions of the streets and public places conducive to the use of active transportation? Do pedestrians and cyclists have access to direct routes, and do they benefit from an environment planned and designed with their needs in mind? All these questions are integral to an active transportation planning strategy and should be asked, thought over and answered appropriately by the planners and designers of a community.


  1. [1] John Pucher & Lewis Dijkstra, 2003. “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons From the Netherlands and Germany”. American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 9.
  2. [2] Juan Torres & Paul Lewis, 2010. “Proximité et transport actf : le cas des déplacements entre l’école et la maison à Montréal et à Trois-Rivières”, Environnement urbain, vol. 4.
  3. [3] Peter T. Katzmarzyk and Ian Janssen, 2004. “The Economic Costs Associated With Physical Inactivity & Obesity in Canada: An Update”. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 29, no. 1.
  4. [4] Lawrence D. Frank, Martin A. Anderson & Thomas L. Schmid, 2004. “Obesity Relationships with Community Design, Physical Activity, and Time Spent in Cars”. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 27, no. 2.
  5. [5] N. Sari, 2009. “Physical Inactivity and its Impact on Healthcare Utilization”. Health Economics, vol. 18, no. 8.
  6. [6] Transport Canada, 2007. Evaluation of Total Cost of Air Pollution Due to Transportion in Canada.
  7. [7] Transport Canada, 2008. Estimates of the Full Cost of Transportion in Canada.

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