MPHA in the News: Good transportation can be a prescription for good health (The Sunday Enterprise)

MARCH 17, 2013

Good transportation can be a prescription for good health

By Renee M. Johnson and Toby Fisher

BROCKTON — We know that transportation is about access to jobs and housing, about economic competitiveness, about convenience and quality of life, and about our environment.

Transportation is also about our health. Our transportation system – the roadways, bridges, regional transit systems, the MBTA, sidewalks and bike lanes across the commonwealth – can have a profound impact on our health that we seldom pause to consider.

For instance, while countless Bay Staters have forgotten their New Year’s resolution designating this as the Year of the Treadmill, millions of residents are focusing on a tried and true (and entirely free) workout plan: walking to the bus or train, walking to work or the store, or hopping on a bike to get to their destination.

Research shows again and again that people who take public transit walk many times farther each day than those bound only to cars.  On average, those who walk to and from the train or bus come close, just during their commute, to achieving the 22 minutes per day of moderate physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For people who live close to destinations, walking has shown to be both a great option and an economic boon – but only if the route is well maintained and safe for pedestrians.  Research shows that nearly half of us will walk up to a mile to get to church or school and 35 percent of us will walk up to a mile to work.  Biking as a mode of transportation has seen a steady increase across the commonwealth – but especially in places that support safe routes for cyclists through bike lanes and other means.

Increased walking and biking has a direct impact on health, including lower body mass index and decreased risk of obesity and hypertension.  Each of these conditions can lead to a host of negative health outcomes – from type 2 diabetes to heart disease.  These conditions are costly to both the patient and to society at large, and reducing their frequency offers Massachusetts the possibility of billions in savings in health care costs, according to a 2012 report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

There are other economic benefits.  Patrons of retail businesses who arrive by foot or bike in a neighborhood shopping area visit most often and spend the most money per month.  Increased neighborhood walkability similarly is related to increased home property values.  Simply put, neighborhoods with cute, walkable mini-downtown areas are pleasant and desirable places to live. Such neighborhoods have the added benefit of building community – because neighbors see each other out and are more likely to know one another.

But that’s not all. For every new trip made by public transit, on foot, or by bike, that means less emissions, better air quality, and better health outcomes for people with respiratory conditions like asthma.  It means fewer injuries and deaths from traffic crashes and increased safety for all road users, including motorists.

And perhaps most importantly, a system that provides accessible, convenient and affordable transportation options enables Brockton residents to get to work on time and provide for their families, to get their children to doctor’s appointments, and to make it to the grocery store to buy healthy food for dinner.

But let’s be honest. Most riders don’t use public transit, break out their sneakers, or pump up those bike tires because they are concerned about their BMI or containing health care costs.

They do it because it strikes the right balance of convenience, timeliness, and affordability that squares with where they need to go and when.

Although the BAT and the MBTA are practical options for commuting within Brockton, to Boston, and elsewhere, much more needs to be done to improve the level of convenience and bring down costs associated with using these transit systems.

Accommodations for cyclists in Brockton are rare. Worse still, the infrastructure for car-free transportation deteriorates more and more with each passing year.  This does little to encourage using public transit.

When public transit, walking, and biking options are not available, inconvenient, unsafe, or unaffordable, more of us will opt for the slog through traffic as the best way to get to work or to the store.

If we want to keep public transit, walking and biking attractive to commuters, it is critical that we invest in a 21st century transportation system today.  For the health of the commonwealth and of Brockton, the time for action is now.

Take a look at the published version:  Good Transportation Can be a Prescription for Good Public Health

Renee M. Johnson is a Brockton resident and assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health.  Toby Fisher is executive director of Massachusetts Public Health Association.

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