The car domination of our towns and cities has caused an overall decrease in regular exercise. Heavily trafficked streets are not pleasant places for pedestrians and not surprisingly people perceive them as dangerous and to be avoided if at all possible. Ian Roberts argues in the Energy Glut, that part of the "success" of road safety measures is due to people getting out of the way of cars, so children no longer play out and journeys on foot have declined in both length and frequency. As car use has escalated so have our waistlines, such that the average body mass index is creeping ever closer towards the obese.
The impact of vehicles on our health is not confined to exercise levels. More seriously, the air that we breathe is being steadily poisoned by particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Air pollution in London averages over twice the legal limits and Islington has the sixth worst air quality in London, causing 180 premature deaths each year.
Islington's Fairness Commission tonight focussed on health inequality. After shocking statistics on differences in life expectancy and the extent of obesity, lung cancer and cardio-vascular disease in the borough, there was a heartfelt discussion about the multi-causal nature of disease, the need for interventions for lifestyle change and the difficulty of getting healthy messages across. Buried in a long list of the required medium term population level changes was "physical activity", but while "the environment" was included as a wider determinant of health, no connection was made with the negative effects of our traffic dominated street-scape on health.
Lack of physical activity is a key indicator for poor health outcomes, yet much of our streetscape is designed to discourage walking and cycling. The grammar of guard rails, central barriers and traffic lights suggests streets are primarily designed for the optimisation of vehicular flow not people flow. This acts as a disincentive to walking and cycling, two of the easiest ways to build physical activity into daily routines. If the Councillors, health professionals, community groups and residents at tonight's meeting were to start talking to transport planners about reducing traffic density & making our streets more walkable, we might start to address health inequality and make Islington a better place to live.