Happening Now

Balanced transportation = healthier people

September 6, 2013

Written By Malcolm Kenton

Michael Huber, a cardiovascular health consultant with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, made an important, often overlooked point at the 24th Annual CTS Transportation Research Conference in St. Paul, which focused on the role of transportation policy in improving human health:

I would like to see a more conscious balancing of the transportation modes. It’s not about forcing people to walk or bike. It’s about giving them a choice so they can make a decision. We have spent countless dollars redesigning our transportation system to accommodate the single-occupancy automobile and it is going to take some time to work ourselves out of that, but we have to start.

Yes, we do, because far too many Americans don’t have a choice when it comes to how they travel. We have seen the degree to which the fortunate portion of Americans who have been given more passenger train frequencies have responded to their new-found freedom of choice—a freedom that Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and many others take for granted. We need to work together to win the investment necessary to expand this freedom of choice to the rest of the country.

Transportation officials too often fail to consider the effects of how we design transportation systems, and which forms of transportation we prioritize, on the health and well-being of the people who use them. The goal is usually to speed the flow of traffic and get people from where they are to where they want to go as quickly as possible, regardless of how the way in which this is accomplished affects health.

Preventable conditions and avoidable care cost the United State between $25 and $50 billion each year, according to a2009 Thompson Reuters white paper. These are precisely the types of conditions that leading a more physically active lifestyle and breathing cleaner air can reduce or eliminate. A transportation system centered on automobiles not only generates the most pollution per person transported, it also reduces physical activity—when people drive everywhere, they tend not to walk as much. By contrast, relying on public transportation for most of one’s travel needs can reduce by 50% or more the chances of coronary heart diseases, adult diabetes, and becoming obese. This is because people walk and bike more to get between transit stations and various places they want to go.

This is not to mention the sheer fact that the less you drive, the less your life is in danger. “Residents of transit-oriented communities have only about a quarter of the per capita traffic fatality rate as residents of sprawled, automobile-dependent communities,” according to a 2010 Victoria Transport Policy Institute report. VTPI also found that automotive pollution is responsible for as many premature deaths per year as motor vehicle crashes. Robust passenger train and transit systems and walkable development patterns go hand-in-hand, both serving to make driving less appealing and costlier than the alternatives for routine trips, which incorporate more physical activity and produce fewer emissions.

As Mr. Huber acknowledges, it will take some time to undo the effects of decades of lopsided transportation policy driven by cheap and plentiful oil, whose era is coming to an end, and the distorted view that roads and airports are essential public investments while railroads must fend for themselves. But we do have to start, and NARP is in it for the long haul.

Image from a February 2010 American Public Health Association report, The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation.