Transportation’s Impact on Health

By Mr. Bruce Belmore P.Eng., PTOE, AVS posted 23 days ago

Over time, we have unwittingly removed physical activity from peoples’ lives through design. Communities are planned in large part around the use of cars and walking—biking and transit use are often an afterthought. This has led to a growing health challenge. Obesity has risen to epidemic proportions in North America, which has been linked to our car-centric culture.

More than 100 years ago, health was largely determined by how and where you lived—today, in spite of tremendous advances in medical care, this is still true. However, our current health epidemic is not one of infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid, but of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Medical Officers of Health in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area (GTHA) in Canada have started to measure the costs of this less-healthy lifestyle. The results are staggering. The medical officers released a 2014 report estimating the societal costs of obesity and physical inactivity within the GTHA have reached more than $4 billion per year. It places the direct medical costs at $1.4 billion. Urban sprawl does not help these statistics, and the medical community believes that we need to move back to building healthy, compact communities with mixed land uses that both facilitate and promote an active lifestyle.

You may be asking: Why don’t we just exercise more? The fact is that the number of people who make time to regularly go to the gym or undertake recreational activity is a small portion of society. We are also finding that building exercise into everyday activities, such as our daily commute or trip to school, is a much more effective and long-lasting way to manage our health.

So how do we best turn the corner on transportation to achieve more healthy outcomes?
1. Work closer with urban planners, city officials, and community groups to provide solutions that more closely reflect the integration of land use and transportation.
2. Advocate for Complete Streets that support active transportation and transit modes, as well as participate in the discussion on ITE’s Complete Streets Council to learn more about this topic. For more, see the Council’s update in this issue starting on page 22.
3. Establish city targets for active transportation and public transit and monitor progress on achieving these targets.
4. Encourage the use of clean energy modes of transportation, common in the micro-mobility market of electric bikes and scooters. Pollution is another factor known to affect your health.

Targets have subsequently been established for the GTHA to try and achieve healthier outcomes for the growing population of this region. These include increasing transit by 9.8 percent, increasing active transportation to work and school by 5 percent, and substituting 5 percent of current short trips by car with active modes. The medical officers who wrote the report predict that, each year, this will prevent 338 premature deaths, 1,000 cases of diabetes, and 90 hospitalizations from heart and lung conditions. These outcomes will also result in improved transportation equity, social connectivity, and more supportive communities for an aging population.

The good news is that a modest change in our level of physical activity can have tremendous impact on our health and life expectancy. I hope that you enjoy this edition of ITE Journal as we collectively look at solutions to address transportation and health.

This blog post is from the President's Message in the May 2019 issue of ITE Journal.