Healthy, Wealthy and Wise Transportation Policy

Todd Litman is one of my favorite writers on Planetizen‘s blog, and he delivered a doozie of an article on the benefits of transit and triansit-oriented development.  He wrote the “Public “Transportation and Health” chapter of the new book, Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy: Recommendations and Research, and shares some of his findings in this article.  He claims, “Public health impacts are not generally given a lot of consideration in transport planning decisions such as chosing between highway and public transit improvements, or whether to rise fuel taxes and parking fees, but this research suggests that creating a more diverse and efficient transport system may be among the most cost-effective ways to improve public health, and improving public health is one of the largest benefits of improving alternative modes (walking, cycling and public transit), encouraging more efficient travel patterns, and creating more accessible, multi-modal communities.”

He points out the US’ lower than average life expectancy among first-world nations, and our much higher healthcare spending.  A significant factor in our unhealthiness comes from our car dependence and high vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rates.  Many transit improvements would not only help ease congestion, but would help public health.  Our first place rank in traffic fatalities also contributes to our lower lifespan, to the tune of 1.2 million potential years of life lost annually.  If we could reduce this number it would improve lifespan and reduce disabilities and health care costs.  Improvements to air pollution would also positively affect public health.  Studies also show that car dependency and obesity are positively correlated; the more a country depends on the car, the fatter its people are. 

It has also been shown through a variety of studies that people who live in walkable communities and use transit are more likely to reach physical activity targets and avoid obesity, along with its correlated problems.  These communities also allow people to spend their money on things other than cars, including healthier food and better health care.  It allows people who would not be able to drive because of income or physical disability to get better access to services, including medical care.  The ability to exercise safely and casually mix with neighbors provides both physical and mental health benefits.

In his research, Litman also found that traffic casualty rates tend to decline as alternative modes of transportation (walking, biking and transit) increase.  This shows that, as far as general safety is concerned, the suburbs are often less safe and healthy than urban communities.  He also found that transit and TOD reduce emissions per VMT.  Demographic trends show a shift in desires from being able to use a car to being able to walk or use transit.  Transportation related health impacts are often overlooked in planning, despite the fact that planning was originally used to protect the health and safety of individuals.  We need to take these issues into consideration and plan for healthy, safe communities.

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