How does transport impact our mental health?

10 October 2022
How does transport impact our mental health?

Why should we wait for a bus if we can jump straight in a car? Why take the train if we can drive or fly? We make our transport choices based on a range of factors, with economy often the decider. This is all the more understandable during a cost-of-living crisis and, as last week’s blog described, we sometimes set aside genuine concerns about the environment to prioritise saving money.

At Campaign for Better Transport we strongly believe that fares should be fairer and more flexible, but when we say that sustainable public transport is ‘greener, better, fairer’, what do we mean by ‘better’? We believe that trains, buses and trams are better than the alternatives for the environment, equality of opportunity and the economy, but there is one important area affecting all of us which receives less attention, and that area is mental health.

The phenomenon of slow travel has gained immense popularity since 2020, and in Transport for HumansPete Dyson and Rory Sutherland point out that we should resist the temptation to think of travel time as wasted time. Whether walking, cycling, driving, flying or using sustainable public transport, humans are travelling beings. How we travel matters, for ourselves and for others. Still, our journeys can be stressful.  This could be due to delays, cost, or the anxiety of being in a crowded environment, which many have felt exacerbated by the pandemic. Yet driving is not guaranteed to be less stressful. Drivers and passengers are also affected by stress when delayed in traffic, tired or claustrophobic, and Dyson and Sutherland’s book notes that

‘People with long car commutes are more likely than others to have high blood pressure, to suffer from fatigue and to have difficulty focusing their attention.’

So when making everyday transport choices, why might we prioritise public transport for mental health? Here’s the heart of it: all forms of transport-related stress are often out of our own control, yet in the cocoon of the car (the ultimate echo chamber, in many senses), we suffer alone, while on public transport we share the journey with others, with people who may be our neighbours, or may have travelled from miles away. As The Mental Health Foundation points out, sharing is good for our mental health. This seems both profoundly symbolic and a vitally important reason why public transport is ultimately better, greener and fairer.

We are fortunate that more and more attention is being given to mental health in recent years, and more people feel able to talk about the challenges faced, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including isolation, loss of loved ones, changing circumstances and financial hardship. The Mental Health Foundation’s report How transport offers a route to better health describes in very clear terms why public transport should be an integral part of a healthy society on account of its positive impact on mental and physical health, and studies have shown that this is the case across the world, including in less developed countries than ours.

With pandemic restrictions lifted, many remain nervous about socialising, which of course includes using public transport. At Campaign for Better Transport, we are keen to emphasise that travelling with others on public transport is safe for people of all ages, and we know that the elderly have been particularly nervous about returning to buses and trains. We’d like to encourage everyone to use public transport as much as possible not just for the health of the environment and economy, but for our physical and mental health. Taking buses, trains and trams is good for those services because increased passenger numbers increase revenue, and shows policy makers that these services are vital and valued but, crucially, it is good for us too! Don’t just take our word for it, either. The National Centre for Social Research states in this report for the Department for Transport that:

‘Transport allows access to non-healthcare activities that are beneficial for physical and mental health and for social connection and wellbeing, and the reduction of social exclusion.’

The Centre also makes the case for supporting and improving transport provision. The better it is, the more people will use it and the healthier they will be, physically and mentally.

‘Quality of transport provision affects stress and wellbeing because it affects the quality of the travelling experience. Public transport interventions can positively impact mental health in two ways: alleviating traffic and reducing commuting times.’

So, on this World Mental Health Day, give your mental and physical health a boost by choosing better, greener, fairer transport. And, if you feel like it, smile at someone, thank the driver or the guard, offer someone a hand with their luggage, and let transport help us all feel better, together.