The relationship between transport and mental health

In Legal Lines, June 20216 MinutesBy Danielle BestonJuly 6, 2021

Spending too much time in the car could be affecting our mental health. A new report by the University of Auckland for the New Zealand Transport Agency on the relationship between transport and mental health identifies several key concerns and recommends ways the transport sector can support psychological wellness.

Psychological distress is on the rise

The transport sector has an important influence on our ability to move, make connections and meet basic needs for income, food and access to health services, all of which impact mental health. According to the New Zealand Health Survey, the prevalence of psychological distress has increased from 4.5% in 2011/12 to 8.2% in 2018/2019.

Sources of distress

A person’s wellbeing can be impacted beyond just sitting in traffic. Heavy car usage leads to busier roads, which can cause anxiety for parents when walking with children. It also leads to greater background noise and hypervigilance in avoiding injury. Low-income communities can experience transport poverty, with budget advisors reporting that it is common for people to forego food to pay for transport to get to work.

Then there is the concept of community severance, which is the idea that transport infrastructure is eroding our neighbourhoods. People who live in really heavy traffic areas can find that their social connections shrink as inaccessible street environments can reduce the number of friends that adults and children have.

Private car use

Some new trends, such as rising private car use, associated noise pollution, lengthening commutes and increasing traffic stress for active commuters, are also likely to contribute to worsening mental health outcomes. Roughly four out of five commutes are done in a car. This is concerning when this mode of transport is most associated with poorer mental health outcomes.

Research shows that car trips of 15 minutes or longer can lead to poorer life satisfaction, reduced family life satisfaction, declining community participation and lower productivity at work. Ownership, usage and time spent in cars have all risen in New Zealand in the past two decades. Meanwhile, active modes of transport such as cycling, typically associated with better mental health outcomes, have declined since the 1970s.

Optimising psychological wellbeing

The report highlights the positive contribution that walkable environments, reduced commutes times, increased active commuting, lower costs and increased public transport comfort can make to mental wellbeing. It also recommends more active monitoring of the transport needs and experiences of groups with higher levels of psychological distress in our communities such as Maori, Pacific peoples, women, youth and people living on low incomes.

The report suggested that commutes played an enormous part in life satisfaction and wellbeing. Factors of significance included a combination of how much control you have, how long it takes to get somewhere and how stimulating the journey is. For example, if you compare people who drive a car with people who ride a bike, both receive high levels of stimulation because they have to concentrate by observing their surroundings and being reactive. The main difference is that there can be more stops and starts in a car in congestion, so people who drive were the most likely to find their commute stressful. By contrast, people who rode a bike were most likely to find their commute exciting because they had more control in traffic-congested areas, resulting in a journey less prone to interruptions.


Some 83% of journeys to work are done in a car while the remaining modes – foot, bike, bus or train – only account for 17%. The average commute in Auckland is now 23 minutes. Those who took public transport were most likely to find their commute boring, with low levels of stimulation and control, while walkers were most likely to find it relaxing. Overall, studies showed active transport, such as cycling, was better for the mind.

“We tend to think that transport is a slightly annoying part of our day, but it can have quite a strong negative impact on our mental health,” says the lead author of the report, Dr Kirsty Wild. “Conversely, it can have some quite positive impacts depending on how we configure our transport system.”

Let’s hope that the New Zealand Transport Agency takes on board some of the recommendations in this report as I’m sure we’d all like to see some innovative improvements in this area.



Danielle Beston

Please note that this article is not a substitute for legal advice and if you have a particular matter that needs to be addressed, you should consult with a lawyer. Danielle Beston is a barrister who specialises in transport law and she can be contacted on (09) 379 7658 or 021 326 642.