Why women’s participation in active transport might help eliminate future pandemics.

A guest post by Ai Sumihira

It has been a while since alert level 4 was declared in August 2021. Yes, it is extremely worrying to be in lockdown for such a long period, with annoyingly infectious variant of disease. – Just trying to breathe and to look for something positive. On the quiet road during the alert level 4, I could hear birds. I saw small children riding bike. Footpaths in busy suburbs were full of people. And Yes, life with less traffic noise is somewhat tranquil.

I suppose a number of people saw or read recently that a prominent politician criticised a high profile women scientist’s exercise habit. While transport and international outbreak of Covid-19 are distally connected, the debate and its ripple effects in the media aroused my curiosity. And of course, I wrote this, because I like to support women in science in general.

Neo-Liberalism and Microbial “traffic”

In the past centuries of human history,  diseases have invented and changed the way how cities construct themselves in some ways. Cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis you name it, pandemic has progressed and equipped humans to survive through (Frumkin, 2021). Back at the end of 1990s, the epidemiologist Anthony McMichael published this thought-provoking article, “ Hazard to Habitat”. In the article, McMichael (1999) described how global trends of capitalist economy, urbanism, extensive food production and globalisation would alter the pattern of infectious diseases, although infectious diseases were no longer considered life-threatening then. It was written prior to SARS, MERS and Swine flu outbreak. Accelerated by neo-liberal capitalist economy, the world then looked like it had got smaller, people on the globe became connected more than ever. People started travelling across the planet intensively. The diseases and pathogens also did travel, and were transmitted on other side of the planet very quickly, for example of HIV/ AIDS (McMichael, 1999). The majority of Covid-19 cases were also connected to international and local travel. Border restrictions were one of the first defences against the spread.

As globalisation advanced towards the end of last century, extensive urbanism saw forests and waterways diminishing  to accommodate humans, and to suit the needs of burgeoning populations and related consumption . While we were burying waterways and cutting forests to build houses, wild animals lost their homes. Where did wild animals go when they lost their homes due to housing development for humans? Understandably, the level of contacts between human and wild animals increased. Wild animals could carry pathogens that cause disease in humans. Then, urban community settings act as a “gateway” for infectious diseases (McMichael, 1999). Auckland is the biggest city in Aotearoa, and is struggling to stump out this current Covid-19 pandemic sadly, as urban settings create such a perfect environment  for the  virus to travel easily.

While intensified food production can alter the pattern of infectious diseases, it produces large carbon footprint as well (Ministry for the Environment & Stats. NZ, 2019). Of course, all of the above: transport and travel, urbanisation and food production, contribute to climate change. When the Earth heats up, it is widely understood that it creates a beneficial setting for vector diseases, such as dengue fever, to flourish. Understandably climate change tears down the whole ecosystem and impairs the pattern of how nature does its own thing. In essence, the world becomes unpredictable- the patterns of cyclones, weather, even infectious diseases evolve and change, in worst case, diseases get more and more infectious and resistant.

Wet markets in a number of Asian countries have served the purpose to put some food on a table, often for less affluent communities, for a long time. Banning wet markets may not be so effective (Petrikova et al., 2020) as it ignores the root causes of this “microbial traffic” ( McMichael, 1999) that we humans created over decades.

Climate change and transport

Aotearoa New Zealand produces one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world. According to the report published by The Minister for the Environment and Stats NZ in 2019 “Environment Aotearoa”, the industries that produce high carbon footprint in our nation is agriculture and transport- in contrast to other OECD countries, we produce the majority of electricity with natural cause such as hydrogen ( Ministry for the Environment & Stats NZ, 2019). Having that in mind, agriculture being our top industry, reducing the greenhouse gases through changing the way of farming might take time. This means, transport has to be the key in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Aotearoa also sees the highest number of car ownership per capita in the world (Environmental Health Indicators New Zealand (EHINZ), 2020). Even worse, we have a pretty high rate of young people ( particularly between 15 and 19 years old) dying in road traffic accidents (EHINZ, 2017). In essence, the car dependent society here is literally killing our future generations at this present moment by road traffic accidents as well as by contributing to climate change.

Lindsay et al. (2011)’s study states that the majority of trips by cars in Aotearoa are quite short. It reports that 70 % of car trips are under 7km. If Aotearoa reduces under-7km car trips just by 5%, Lindsay et al. (2011, p.57) insists, it saves 116 preventable deaths from physical inactivity due to motor vehicle dependency. Road traffic accidents add 5 more avoidable deaths to this statistics. Needless to say, reducing less than 7km car trips by 5% reduces 223 million kilometres of trip all together, and saves 22 million litres of fuel.

Women and active transport

The problem is, road infrastructure is often described as “masculine” ( Wild et al., 2021).Undeniably, a lot of women struggle to participate in active transport such as cycling. Wild et al (2021)’s study reports that over 70% of cyclists in Aotearoa are men. The road structure and active transport culture are reported to be often constructs of masculinity. The participants in this study describe experiences of being “ belittled” and “ invisible” even in the bicycle retails. The difficulty participating in active transport is evident in the current road infrastructure ( Wild et al., 2021, p.7).

I can relate this as I skate: I feel awkward and nervous to visits skate shops as though I would be challenged my worth to be on the road, on skate.

Another study of Wild (2020) for Women in Urbanism explored the experience of living in low-traffic environment in Auckland during the first wave of Covid-19 Lockdown in 2020. A number of participants reported they enjoyed the lower level of motor vehicles on road. They felt less anxious, less annoyed, but safer in the community. Evidently more children and women were on road cycling during the lockdown.

Groups of people who are vulnerable to pandemic are also vulnerable to climate change (Frumkin, 2021). Both pandemics and climate change highlight the existing equity in our society. Children, elderly, young people, women, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour, the list can go on. Those groups of people aren’t vulnerable by nature at all. In my opinion, the construct sof society often have made us look vulnerable. It is clear that community can play such an important role together, disrupting the unhelpful constructs.

To return to my  starting point, reducing the risk of climate change is also thought to lessen the risk of further pandemic from zoonotic diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans. If we want to never see a pandemic again and to slow down climate change effectively, transforming our view towards transport seems to be a good place to start amongst other things such as reducing waste and eating more plants. Dr Wiles was criticised for being out cycling, this culture, punishing women participating in active transport is problematic and out of date. Dr Wiles cycles and I skate: liberating women to participate in active transport may be the key to a healthier environment and healthy communities.


EHINZ. (2017). About transport and health.

Frumkin, H. (2021). COVID-19, the build environment, and health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 129(7).

Lindsay, G., Macmillan, A., & Woodward, A. (2011). Moving urban trips from cars to bicycles: Impact on health and emissions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 35(1), 54-60.

McMichael, A. (1999). From hazard to habitat: Rethinking environment and health. Epidemiology and Society: A Forum on Epidemiology and Global Health, 10(4). 460-464.

Ministry for the Environment, & Stats NZ. (2019). Environment Aotearoa 2019.

Petrikova, I., Cole, J., & Farlow, A. (2020). COVID-19, wet markets, and planetary health. The Lancet, 4(June), e213-e214.

Wild, K. (2020). A life in a low-traffic neighbourhood: Community Experiences of Covid-19 Lockdown.

Wild, K., Woodward, A., & Shaw, C. (2021). Gender and the E-bike: Exploring the role of electric bikes in increasing women’s access to cycling and physical activity. Active Travel Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1(1), 1-20.

Image:  Joy Banerjee

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