Walkable streets equals clean air

The Share the Road Programme supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to move towards investing in infrastructure for those who walk and cycle. The overall goal of the programme is to introduce policies which act as a catalyst for systematic investments in walking and cycling road infrastructure to create benefits for road safety, the environment and accessibility.

While most governments around the world are hard at work to get people out of their cars to reduce vehicle emissions and improve air quality in urban spaces, in African cities, many people already reach their destinations through the healthiest and most environmentally-friendly mode: walking.

Emissions from the transport sector are a major contributor to climate change and have a significant impact on air quality. Globally, polluted air causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year. It also has detrimental impacts on climate, biodiversity and ecosystems, and quality of life in general. Streets are designed for pedestrians to ensure clean air, safety and accessibility.

In Africa, the goal is to encourage people to keep walking.

In Lusaka, Zambia, for example, 65 per cent of the population walks every day while 24 per cent use public transport and only 10 per cent use private vehicles. But, the figures are shifting. Zambia’s Non-Motorized Transport Policy, which was supported by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Share the Road initiative, notes that traffic congestion is on the rise in Lusaka and other cities.

Rising vehicle traffic in Africa is taking a heavy toll. New infrastructure projects often do not account for pedestrians. The World Bank estimates that sidewalks are missing from around 65 per cent of the road network in Africa. The rates of road traffic deaths in Africa are highest in the world, with road traffic injuries ranked as the leading cause of death of people aged 5-29 years old.

“Investing in non-motorized transport – like walking and cycling – helps improve air quality and road safety,” says Rob de Jong, Head of Sustainable Mobility at UNEP.  Prioritizing active mobility contributes not only to human health but also can create less polluted, more liveable and resilient cities in the future.

African countries are taking note. Zambia, for example, has committed to increasing investments in high-quality walking and cycling facilities to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions follow the overall targets set in the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution. The ten-year goals for an improved walking and cycling environment in Zambian cities also have clear road safety and air quality targets.

In Rwanda, a study commissioned by the government identified that vehicular traffic in urban centers is one of the two primary sources of air pollution. In response, a car-free zone was introduced in the central business district to reduce air pollution. The first African Air Quality and Climate Laboratory has since been established to measure air pollution and identify other sources of greenhouse gases (GHG).

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia launched a national policy to encourage walking and cycling. Ethiopia aims to meet the World Health Organization’s ambient air quality norms 350 days a year by increasing investments in high-quality walking and cycling facilities and taking measures to control private vehicle use. In Kampala, Uganda, local authorities have invested in improving infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists in the city centre; while in Nairobi, Kenya, there are ongoing plans to improve conditions for city residents.

“National and city governments have a significant role to play in developing scalable solutions to air pollution,” says Soraya Smaoun, Air Quality Coordinator at UNEP. Particularly, “in raising awareness about its health impacts and in promoting behavioural changes with clean air co-benefits.”

Share the Road is working with several local partners in African cities to support the development of scalable and sustainable solutions that ensure that co-benefits are highlighted and that people who walk and cycle are able to experience improved mental and physical health, social-cohesiveness and reduced air pollution.

UN Environment