Driverless cars could be better for our health – but they could be a lot, lot worse

A driverless car in California, 2015. Image: Getty.

Driverless cars – autonomous vehicles – are coming. The topic is a constant presence in media; The New York Times Magazine recently devoted most of an issue to it.

The technological imperative is strong: if we have the technology, we have to use it. The economic imperative is even stronger. Many industries see big dollar signs. Governments want to be somewhat cautious, but they don’t want to be left behind.

The sales pitches are becoming clear: driverless cars will free drivers to do other things; driverless cars will reduce congestion because they can travel closer together; driverless cars will create massive economic opportunities.

We are also told driverless cars will be much safer, because human error causes more than 90 per cent of crashes.

Understanding how cars affect our health

Human-operated cars affect health in three main ways, all negatively. How might driverless cars be healthier?

First, car crashes killed around 1.25m people worldwide in 2015. The claims that driverless cars will kill fewer people are credible, but unproven.

Safety improvements will depend on the technology in the cars, which is currently being developed and tested. Safety also depends on how the surrounding environments are engineered or re-engineered to keep people and things from darting in front of driverless cars.

Second, cars kill people by creating pollution. Cars with internal combustion engines produce gases and particulates, which cause lung disease. Motor vehicles are also one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide worldwide, which causes climate change.

The polluting effects of electric cars depend on how the electricity they use is generated. Thus, the pollution-related benefits of driverless cars depend on the mix of petroleum-powered versus electric-powered vehicles.

This mix is difficult to predict and likely to differ by country. The pollution effects of driverless cars will also depend on whether they travel more or fewer total kilometres than today’s cars.

Third, cars kill people because we sit while we drive, reducing healthier modes of transport like walking, cycling, or even taking public transport. Public transport is a healthy mode of travel because people generally have to walk or cycle to, from and between stops and stations.

Little physical activity and too much sitting independently contributes to the chronic diseases that kill most people in the world. Those diseases are usually heart diseases, strokes, multiple cancers, and diabetes.

Driverless cars will do nothing to reduce the effects of cars on chronic diseases unless they are introduced in a way that reduces the time people spend sitting in cars.

More than 90 per cent of the negative health impacts of cars result from the effects on physical activity, sitting, and chronic disease.

For example, modelling found that if 10 per cent of motorised transport in Melbourne was shifted to walking or cycling, improvements in disability-adjusted life-years for every 100,000 people (an indicator of quantity and quality of life) would be -34 (worse) for road trauma (mainly because cyclists might not be protected from cars), +2 for lung diseases, and +708 for the combination of heart diseases and type 2 diabetes.

Models for five other cities (Boston, Copenhagen, Delhi, London and Sao Paulo) supported the same conclusion.

Virtually all of the health impacts of cars are due to increasing risks for very common chronic diseases. Therefore it will not matter if people are sitting in driverless or people-driven cars.

One of the implications of these findings is that the people planning for driverless cars should explicitly consider the health consequences of driverless cars. Injuries from crashes and air pollution are routinely considered in transportation planning, but impacts on physical activity and chronic diseases are not.

Transportation planning goals and methods need to incorporate chronic disease impacts generally, but especially when planning a major disruption like accommodating driverless cars. Ideally, public health professionals will be at the table as questions are asked and decisions are made.


What will the ‘car 2.0’ era look like?

It is completely unclear what a world with driverless cars will look like.

The driverless future depends mainly on who is making decisions about driverless cars, and the outcomes are likely to vary across countries. Most of the discussion so far has been about the technology’s ability to keep driverless cars from running into each other and people on the streets.

Automobile companies, including both legacy (like Ford and Mercedes-Benz) and new entrants (like Tesla and Amazon) will certainly be speaking up, with an eye to maximising their profits and speeding up the transition. But who will be responsible for looking out for the public good?

The biggest health impacts are likely to be based on how cities are changed to accommodate driverless cars. It is clear that designing cities to be optimal for “car 1.0” has been a long-term disaster for health and environmental sustainability. Roads designed to meet transportation goals of moving as many cars as fast as possible are dangerous and unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists.

Suburban-style developments are based on the assumption that people will drive everywhere they go. But building low-density housing, the separation of residences from jobs and shops, and disconnected street networks enforce automobile dependency.

Urban design and land use policies that create these environments have become common worldwide and have been shown to have numerous physical (chronic diseases), mental (stress), and social (isolation) health problems.

People are just starting to brainstorm how cities may change for “car 2.0”. The range in visions is enormous, with equally large implications for health. I have heard of two contrasting visions that would have very different health effects.

One vision is that people will continue to own private cars, but they will be driverless. The cars drive the owner to work, then they either go park themselves nearby or go back home and wait in the garage until the end of the workday.

This would be a dream for car companies, because everyone would keep buying cars, and they would wear out faster because the cars might make two work roundtrips per day instead of one. This scenario would make traffic worse and would provide essentially no health benefits compared to car 1.0.

A second vision assumes that driverless cars would be considered as part of a broader concept of urban mobility that focuses on moving people instead of cars. The emphasis would be on active modes, with greatly improved access to public transport and corporate-owned shared driverless cars used as supplements to the other (healthier) modes.

There would be fewer cars, which would be in use most of the time, so the need for parking would be dramatically reduced.

Think about what could be done with the huge amounts of land now used for parking. Sidewalks could be widened, protected bicycle paths could be added to many streets, and linear parks could be created.

Parking lots and garages could be redeveloped into much more profitable people-oriented uses, revitalising cities and opening land for affordable housing. Cities would benefit from an increased tax base, allowing them to expand public transport. People would benefit by avoiding the huge costs of owning a car.

Which future will we choose?

The transition to driverless cars is an opportunity to create more walkable/bikeable/sustainable/liveable cities that provide a multitude of benefits for residents, businesses and governments.

However, we could waste the opportunity so that car 2.0 merely continues the mistakes and negative health and environmental consequences that car 1.0 has been delivering for the past century.

The critical difference lies in who is making the decisions and what the criteria for success are. Public health professionals should be among the decision-makers, because the consequences are too important to leave to engineers and corporate leaders.

The ConversationThe main criteria should deal with how to use driverless car technology to make people’s lives better and make our cities healthier, more liveable, and more sustainable – not to maximise profits.

Jim Sallis, Professorial Fellow, Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, Australian Catholic University; Emeritus Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.