By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments should invest at least 20 percent of their transport budgets in infrastructure that promotes walking and cycling, to save lives, curb pollution and cut climate-changing emissions from vehicles, the United Nations' environment agency said.
Almost half of the 1.3 million people who die each year from traffic accidents are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) noted in a report.
Across the low and middle-income countries studied in Africa, Asia and Latin America, proportionally twice as many people as in rich nations die in road traffic accidents, it said.
In the sample of 20 countries surveyed, the top three most dangerous for walking and cycling were in Africa. In Malawi, 66 percent of all road fatalities were pedestrians and cyclists; in Kenya 61 percent; and in South Africa 53 percent.
“People are risking their lives every time they leave their homes,” UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim said.
As well as causing deaths, designing transport systems around cars increases climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions and deadly air pollution, he noted in a statement.
"We must put people, not cars, first in transport systems,” he urged.
Ways to do that include bicycle-sharing schemes in cities, adding cycle paths to roads, and putting in more pedestrian crossings and traffic-calming measures, the report said.
Motorized transport is responsible for a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, UNEP said. It is the fastest-growing sector for emissions, and at current rates is projected to be responsible for a third of emissions by 2050.
The world's fleet of private cars is forecast to triple by 2050, with most of the growth in developing countries.
This explosion in cars "will severely restrict" the world's ability to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed by governments, UNEP warned.
Poor air quality, partly due to vehicle emissions, is estimated to cause around 7 million premature deaths each year and is worsening health problems like bronchitis, asthma and heart disease, the agency said.
Besides boosting spending on walking and cycling infrastructure, UNEP called on countries to draft policies for non-motorized transport, and to implement them urgently where they already exist.
Among those who walk and ride bikes, particular attention should be paid to the needs and safety of vulnerable users, such as children, the elderly and the disabled, it added.
Governments also were urged to make an effort to champion walking and cycling.
"Political will is not only about policies - it is about giving walking and cycling equal status to private cars," the agency said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)