Health transport

Living near busy roads

As reported in The Age, the US Health Effects Institute recently published a report on the effects of living near busy roads.

Punt Road traffic

Its conclusion was that:

…there is sufficient evidence that exposures to traffic-related air pollution cause asthma exacerbation in children and suggestive evidence that they might cause other health effects.

…the zones most impacted by traffic-related pollution are up to 300 to 500 meters from highways and major roads

How do they define “major”? It appears they’ve used the metric of 10,000 vehicles per day.

The latest VicRoads Traffic System Performance report doesn’t give specific figures for particular roads, but does provide average lane occupancy figures (in terms of both cars and people), from which one can derive a very rough average number of cars on each type of road:

  • Freeways 28,485 cars per lane per 24 hours
  • Divided arterials 13,180 cars per lane per 24 hours
  • Undivided arterials 11,063 cars per lane per 24 hours
  • Undivided arterials with trams 11,361 cars per lane per 24 hours

But this is very rough. The vehicle count figures appear to include only cars, not other vehicles. Obviously roads around Melbourne vary enormously, and the lane occupancy figures apparently include buses and trams, so the number of vehicles will be a fair bit lower on better-served PT routes (such as the figure for roads with trams). And the level of congestion on each road would also directly effect the emissions, of course.

I do live near some main roads — about 100 metres from one, and about 400 metres from another. Fortunately, being in an area of Melbourne settled before the domination of the car, they are only one lane in each direction, and far enough out of the city centre that clear ways do not apply.

In VicRoads parlance, they would be undivided arterials. I suspect they are below the average in terms of traffic, but whether they are under 10,000 vehicles per day or not, I don’t know.

While Melbourne’s air quality is apparently quite good compared to some cities, obviously the air quality anywhere in urban areas isn’t going to be as good as it is in most rural areas.

But I’m thankful I don’t live close by to much wider and busier roads such as Nepean Highway (4 lanes in each direction), North Road (3 lanes in each direction), the freeways, or the fat outer-suburban roads like Springvale Road (3 lanes each direction).

And I’m rather glad for my nephew and my niece that my sister has moved from her house in East Brighton, which was less than 100 metres from the Nepean Highway. I must ask her if there’s been any noticeable difference in the kids’ health.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

16 replies on “Living near busy roads”

I recall when the Eastern Freeway was built in Collingwood in the 1970s, studies showed an above average concentration of lead in resident children. However, this turned out to be related to the age of the housing stock which was dominated by weather-boards coated in (decades old) high-lead paint.
It’s very hard to prove causality, but like you say, it’s better to live away from main roads.

Hmmm….. we live directly behind Mt Alexander Road, which changes to Flemington Road and has two lanes of traffic both ways and two tram tracks.

And yes, my daughter has asthma. Then again, she had it first diagnosed when she was three and we were living in a quiet, leafy suburb in Adelaide.

The Age letters section published this one a day or two after reporting the release:
Unhealthy logic
THE Sunday Age reported new evidence of significant health risks from traffic pollution for those living within 500 metres of main roads. Yet the Planning Minister is about to ask Parliament to ratify Planning Amendment VC 67, which provides for high-rise residential developments along tram, bus and light rail routes, plus around train stations. The logic is to squeeze into the city another 1.5 million people by 2036.

Elizabeth Jackson, Fitzroy published 21 June 2010

It was perhaps a tenous link for presumably some sort of “Save our Suburbs” action, but especially laughable in light of the fact trains stations, trams and light rail are likely to be lower emissions areas than main roads without PT, and even buses are increasingly going to CNG or other clean burning fuels, and bus-only lanes etc would decrease the desirability of an arterial to many motorists.
High-rise would also lift many residents into air streams above the slow-moving ground layer, presumably offering a better air quality too.

It also ignores the increased benefits those living near PT have in terms of increased walkability, and usually therefore typically improved actual physical exercise and its consequent benefits. Assuming air quality alone will be the sole determinant of health is unwise, although obviously cleaner is better!

I live close to a main road with tram, and the further away from the tram line you move apartments give way to single dwellings. To me, this seems a great compromise; compact dwelling provides great transport accessibility, while detached gives more space, but you lose some transport ease (when applied to existing suburbs, anyway). It preserves the ‘suburban values’ a couple of hundred metres from main roads (500m is probably just a stretch too far for high-rise from major PT – not in terms of walkability, just suburban fabric) but allows infill growth on existing infrastructure and close to other services, etc.
I too seem to have hijacked a ‘health’ discussion into something else, but they’re all interlinked anyway!

I live at Craigieburn near the busiest road to Roxburgh Park which is bridgewater road and bus route 544 from Craigbieburn to Broadmeadows uses it and there is a school which has alot of congestion during the semester times at school. That is my brothers school. Thank you for telling me Daniel about this. No wonder I had asthma at 7 in 2005 and now I am 12.

Hi again. Exteding trains into Rowville will do and trams into Chadstone and East Doncaster would do then.

@Kath, interesting. Yeah obviously there’s not going to be a correlation there always. (I’d consider my street to be quiet and leafy, but it surprised me when I checked just how close to a main road I am.)

@Dave, I think you’re spot-on.

While there are concerns about the planning amendment (in particular just how high will it allow buildings to go without appropriate checks?), the visions of people like Rob Adams are for 8ish storey buildings along main PT corridors, leaving the vast majority of suburbia alone. Provided the PT services are upgraded to cope, and provided you’re not knocking down culturally or historically important buildings, it has some appeal. After all, cities like Melbourne can’t keep expanding outwards.

I imagine our work places and schools where we spend a large portion of our time, would also be a crucial factor? How much time are we spending at home anyway? We come home to sleep? Probably more relevant for people that work from home and stay at home mum’s and dads.


There are other types of pollution besides air pollution. Noise and light pollution can also have significant effects on our health. Something to consider before moving into a “Rob Adams” apartment on a tram line.

funkineering – I agree. But don’t forget that car-based transport also has many impacts that are frequently overlooked – high injury/mortality rate per km compared to walking/PT, parking costs (both obvious and in lost real estate) and many more. So simply spreading out into ‘quiet’ (isolated) areas isn’t going to necessarily lead to a net benefit for pollution/lifestyle/sustainability etc.

Improving building regulations to ensure appropriate acoustic insulation, suitable window coverings, etc in dwellings near pollution sources would mitigate your concerns, and seems like something somewhat overdue (with even intra-building noise often mentioned as a concern in some developments). Note these improved regs should apply to detached dwellings too – there’s plenty of houses with inappropriate protections in this regard too, it’s not like apartments are a special case.)

“high injury/mortality rate per km compared to walking”

Thats a very dubious claim, a lot of people have accidents walking. When you consider that the average person drives at least 100 times further in a year than they walk ( 15,000 km versus 150 km ), I think walking is probably more hazardous per kilometer than driving is. Just look at the pedestrian road toll, and then look at how many people trip over on buckled sidewalks.

Perhaps per km wasn’t the best metric, but ask: what is causing the fatalities? Mostly cars, I suspect! A recent Vic release I found suggested around a third of ped fatalities were elderly, and another third intoxicated, which suggests it’s not always the car’s fault – but planning for better pedestrian access ( and reduced car dominance in the urban fabric might go some way to mitigating pedestrian injuries or deaths.

Further, if the same investment was put into sidewalks/footpaths as roads, I wonder how many buckled paths you’d see? Also, a walking injury is most likely a sprain, whereas a vehicular injury is far more likely to require hospitalization/rehabilitiation, sometimes with lifelong consequences.

I’m not vehemently opposed to cars – they’re critical to our current lifestyles – but think we often give them undue prominence in our thinking and planning.

Also – more on topic – if the majority of our vehicles become electric, is living on a main road going to continue to cause health issues? Will nearby dwellings require tin foil? (ok, that last a bit much!) Pollution can then be controlled at a point source, rather than dispersed along our roadways.

Electric cars will cause more pedestrian and cyclist accidents because you cannot hear them coming. Because of their weight, they also don’t brake very well.

Some of the particulate emissions will rise higher than others, it depends on the local air currents. There are computer models which purport to help assess this.
One thing that puzzles me, is they often talk about the amount of lead sitting around in the dirt on the side of the road, from old petrol, but they never seem to worry about the asbestos from the old brake pads.
When it comes to asbestos, I am a bit of a sceptic, but I do think the hazard of old brake pad dust is underrated compared to the known hazard of fibro.

[the health benefits for cyclists in The Netherlands were at least nine times greater than the [health] hazards. By switching from driving to cycling, people would, on average, live three to 14 months longer because of increased physical activity. The risks they would face would be potentially losing 0.8 to 40 days of life because of increased exposure to air pollution and an average of five to nine days from a fatal traffic accident.]

On cycling, but of interest in the context of the discussion.

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