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Walk21: building transit policies in Vancouver that make people healthier

The post Walk21 conference symposium on October 6, attended by 150 professionals and interested citizens at Creekside Community Center, distilled the information of the larger, longer, more international  Walk21 conference into the simple question: how do we frame health in the case for transit policies?

Everyone knows walking makes people healthier and cars don’t, plus cars are bad for the environment. But most transit policies aren’t built on common wisdom, or even a cost benefit analysis, job creation or return on investment. Transit dollars keep flowing into road infrastructure (construction, not maintenance) to meet yesterday’s goals of reducing road congestion, as if cars are the citizens, not the humans.

Regarding the humans, hundreds of studies show a clear lineage: land use and travel options impact how much exercise people get. This impacts their body mass index (weight) and the level of chronic diseases they experience. In turn, this impacts health care costs and life satisfaction.

For a fuller accounting of health costs of not having walkable neighbourhoods, you can add: the health care costs from impaired respiratory function due to air pollution; the increased stress and cortisol levels from traffic noise; climate change; energy security; and the “silver tsunami” of retired people who need walkable neighbourhoods for independence when they can no longer safely drive.  All these things impact life satisfaction.

Lawrence Frank, PhD and Professor and Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation at UBC, has been working for almost two decades to move the health costs of transit and urban design choices to the front of the equation so those costs can influence decisions up front. In policy-speak, health benefits need to be monetized to get incorporated into policies. A note of frustration entered Frank’s comment to the audience, “Over a hundred studies of youth, hundreds of adults have tied transportation choices to health. How many studies do we need before we move to implementation? So far, the issue is only affecting the margins of the debate. The vast bulk of funds go to automobile infrastructure.”

However, Frank was optimistic. “If you get six people who work together in a room where new information is provided, that’s enough critical mass to go back to work and implement those ideas.  We have teams like that within this room.”

Frank has been instrumental in many of the studies that make the case, and gave the audience a quick download of some of them.  The “driving makes you fat” study found a direct correlation between car time and likelihood of obesity: every additional hour in a car per day increases the likelihood of obesity by 6% while every kilometer walked decreases the likelihood of obesity by 4.8%. In another study, different amenities predicted walking in different age groups. For 5-8 year olds, proximity of parks and open spaces predicted whether children walked. From ages 9-11, density becomes a factor because it allows a walkable school location. “Location should be the number one consideration in school choice,” Frank admonished.  For ages 12-15, “everything matters,” open space, density, school location and mixed use zoning.  In another study, rate of car ownership was a major factor in determining whether families walked: families with one car were 2.6 times more likely to walk than families with 3 cars.

Frank noted that one anticipated public response to these studies is: “We get all that but don’t tell me where to live.” But surveys indicate an unmet demand for walkable neighbourhoods and that built environments play a major role in shaping health outcomes regardless of stated preferences.  People walk more when they live in places that let them walk more.

Walkable neighbourhoods are compact, mixed use neighbourhoods with a variety of destinations. They have density levels that support high levels of public transit, open spaces and food stores. The streets have a lot of intersections for a more direct line of travel between two points.  

Frank pointed out the social justice issue of walkability: many at risk populations – including lower-income, youth and elderly – are found in the least walkable neighbourhoods, depriving them of the benefits of walkability enjoyed by more affluent populations.

According to Geoff Anderson, CEO of Smart Growth America, you don’t need health benefits above the line to make walking, cycling and transit look like the best fiscal choice. Most of the US stimulus package went to new road capacity, even in states where more than half the roads were in poor shape. In the 1950s, when connectivity between towns meant better business, the return on investment was 34%. More recently in Cincinnati, new road capacity mostly enabled suburban sprawl and gave a return of 4.9%. Bus improvements gave a return of 27% and light rail gave a return of 4.9%.

According to Greg Yeomans, Manager of Transport and Land Use for Translink, Vancouver is with the program. It is embedding health benefits of transit options in its processes and project evaluations.

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