Trees are the secret to being happily stuck in traffic
A greener commute is good for mental health - but even here the apartheid legacy makes it mark
“I’m stuck in traffic, but at least I’m staring at a mountain.”
It’s a thought that goes through thousands of Capetonians’ heads, summing up two Mother City truths: it has the country’s worst traffic congestion but is often voted among the most beautiful places in the world.
Now a new study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health has shown that people who make their way through natural environments on their daily commute have better mental health.
For the study, lead author Wilma Zijlema and her team interviewed more than 3,500 people in four European cities.
The results, published in Environment International, showed that those travelling through natural environments scored an average of 2.74 points higher on a mental health rubric than those who didn’t, while those walking or cycling on their commute scored even higher.
Natural environments included “all public and private outdoor spaces that contain green and blue natural elements like trees, forests, city parks and water bodies”.
According to Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the study authors: “Mental health and physical inactivity are two of the main public health problems associated with life in urban environments.
“Urban design could be a powerful tool to confront these challenges and create healthier cities. One way of doing so would be investing in natural commuting routes for cycling and walking.”
In SA, walking or cycling to work is a challenge because apartheid town planning ensured that most people live in far-flung areas a great distance from work opportunities.
According to the National Household Travel Survey, “only 30% of households in SA own a car, with the other 70% depending on taxis, buses, trains and other non-motorised transport modes”.
Those far-flung areas are also the ones most devoid of greenery that could be good for commuters’ mental health. According to a recent policy brief by the environmental science department at Rhodes University, “public investments were disproportionately channelled to the relatively affluent suburbs reserved for white South Africans whilst townships, reserved for black South Africans, did not receive investments in public greening”.
This was in addition to “a lack of investments in infrastructure and local economic development”, with the “the post-1994 democratic government doing little to address this”.
For those in the more affluent suburbs closer to work opportunities, cycling or walking to walk is a pipe dream only achieved by some, and the exposure to natural environments varies heavily from city to city.
According to the 2017 Global Traffic Scorecard, Johannesburg commuters spend 46 hours a month in peak traffic, but for some at least a portion of that time might be spent looking at a city that contains one of the world’s highest densities of man-planted trees.
In Cape Town, commuters spend 49 hours a month in traffic, but if they are lucky enough to travel close to the sea or mountain or forest, the toll on their mental health is likely to be eased.
Commuting in Durban and Pretoria traps people for only 26 hours a month. In the former, you might catch a glimpse of the sea, and in the latter a surfeit of jacarandas.
But still the apartheid legacy makes it mark on the mental health equation: the natural environments on a commute are experienced by those with the shortest commutes and private cars, while those more likely to inch across the vast expanses of “township spaces” will also sit in traffic for the longest while also being exposed to the vagaries of public transport.