When I walk or ride my bike to work each day, I don’t typically think about this action’s relationship to my health.  To me, it is an enjoyable part of my day and a utilitarian activity I need to perform in order to get from A to B.  In my blissful ignorance, I don’t always consider how choosing active transportation is impacting my health, nor how my surrounding environment entices me to choose active transportation as my means of travel.

Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer as an independent panelist at the AGM of a major Ontario political party on the subject of Active Transportation and Health alongside their transportation critic and a registered nurse.  It also allowed me to interact with the public to hear their questions and concerns regarding the topic.  Both the preparation and the experience had the effect of making me further consider my role as a transportation engineer.

Going through university as an engineering student, it’s drilled into your head that you have a duty to protect the public.  It’s true!  In transportation engineering, more conventionally one thinks about road safety to protect lives.  But how do the choices of land use and transportation planning impact the overall health of society through the design choices we make as engineers?  Yes, policy makers and politicians are to blame as well (when aren’t they?), but as engineers we have a duty to protect the public, which includes the general health of the population.  We need to advocate for both the health and safety of the public we serve.

What We Have Done

In the decades of the 20th century, large highway building projects changed the face of North America.  Freeways, automobile-centric design, lack of amenities for active modes, cheap fuel, etc. made it more attractive to use automobiles as a primary means of transportation.  Downtowns died, corner stores closed up shop, and suburban malls and box stores were born.

Transportation planners and engineers had a bigger impact than imagined in the way city form and function took shape in the 20th century.  The automobile was new, untested waters and our society embraced the car culture, vastly impacting our cities, especially in North America.  The following tables illustrate how transportation and land use policies have negatively impacted our cities.

Table 1: Outcomes of Transportation Policies Adversely Effecting Public Health
Policy Focus and Outcomes Impact on Physical Activity and Public Health
Evolution of the freeway systems in urban and suburban areas Catalyst of urban sprawl, leading to less mode choice, greater distance between destinations, greater reliance on automobile travel.
Roadway design standards focused largely on motor vehicle safety Wide lanes and clear recovery zones, emphasis on motor vehicles, little consideration for walking, biking, or public transit.
Measures of effectiveness based on roadway level of service and volume-to-capacity ratios Motor vehicle speed and flow primary criteria for operational analysis and roadway design decisions leading to primary consideration on number of lanes, lane widths, and horizontal alignment.
Roadway designs not viewed as an asset by the community Common designs for 5-lane, 7-lane, and other urban arterial roadways focused merely on motor vehicle travel, without inclusion of context sensitive elements, repeatedly did not meet public expectations as community mobility assets.
Transportation planners and engineers developing roadway project designs autonomously Landmark roadway improvement programs were underway in the 1960s and 1970s, when engineers made mostly economic decisions regarding road design elements and alignment location without involving the public in broader long-term community mobility needs and desires.
Source: Adapted from “The Transportation Profession’s Role in Improving Public Health”, ITE Journal, July 2014, p.18
Table 2: Outcomes of Land Use Policies Adversely Effecting Public Health
Policy Focus and Outcomes Impact on Physical Activity and Public Health
Zoning regulations producing segregated land uses Residential, institutional, employment, and commercial development designated by zoning regulations to exist in separate urban areas, with linkages often relying heavily on motor vehicle travel needed to make longer trips between land uses.
Pervasive use of one-way in, one-way out, cul-de-sac subdivisions Weakened urban network grid connections, residential developments typically without sidewalks, requiring use of motor vehicle travel for practically all urban mobility trips.
Market fixation on single family housing Lead to lower residential densities, limiting viability of travel mode alternatives and precluding closer proximity of differing land uses for shorter trip distances, more readily served by public transit, walking, and biking.
Commercial development parking requirements Expansive parking areas commonly surrounding commercial developments, making approach by motor vehicles travel essentially the only viable mobility access mode.
Reluctance to institute consequential urban growth boundaries Catalyst of urban sprawl leading to larger than necessary urban and suburban areas, reduced mobility efficiencies and limited travel mode alternatives.
Objectionable land-grabbing jurisdiction annexation laws Lead to lower densities and greater travel distances between destinations, jurisdictional inequities, frequently resulting in motor vehicle travel as the only viable mobility access mode.
Source: Adapted from “The Transportation Profession’s Role in Improving Public Health”, ITE Journal, July 2014, p.18

Our automobile-centric culture for commuting presents the image of comfort and convenience.  But is it always?  Most downtown areas in a decent sized city are a gridlocked parking lot during rush hours where one spends the majority of their commute sitting in traffic, barely moving.  When walking in/out of my downtown during rush hour, I can’t help but chuckle when I pass the same vehicles multiple times as they wait in a long queue.  For those rare times I’m driven home (I live inner city), I perhaps save 10 minutes at most by car.

To continue on with the status quo is a costly enterprise, especially in today’s economic climate of high debts and austerity.  Funding can be a challenge.  As population growth in cities continues, the answer is not in solving how to provide more efficient roadways, but in determining how to move people more efficiently.  That is the problem and opportunity statement.

From the health perspective, poor health due to inactivity (among other causes) can directly impact health care costs for an individual.  Instead of treating the effects of inactivity, we should look to the causes of those health effects in the first place.  The question to be begged is how have our past decisions affected our collective health?

What Can We Do?

Like any bad habit or addiction, we need to begin by admitting there is a problem and acknowledging what we have done.  However, even with some of the population recognizing the need to encourage more active transportation, in many cases society still continues with status quo behaviour.  It must be acknowledged that societal change does not happen overnight, it is a slow process that may even take a generation or two.  That being said, we need to start young, getting our children active earlier, so that it becomes an ingrained good habit that serves them well throughout their lifetimes.

In many cities, freeways dissect the downtown, cutting off the central business district from adjacent neighbourhoods and form a physical/psychological barrier that is less attractive to active transportation.  We should take cues from cities that have removed their freeways and changed themselves for the better.  Considering traffic flow principles, it doesn’t matter whether people are gridlocked on a freeway or surface roads if the magnitude of vehicles is the same.  Again, this is about improving the physical environment and how people move efficiently, not vehicles.

Land use plays a major role in how we travel.  When it is more homogeneous, we are more dependent on automobiles to go from A to B – consider living in a suburban neighbourhood and having to drive to get to the nearby big box complex.  In a more mixed land use, we have smaller commercial hubs, closer to where we live.  This makes active transportation more desirable.  Not to mention, gasoline for driving is becoming more and more expensive from an economic standpoint.

Low density developments, poor street patterns, concentrated commercial areas, etc. lead to more driving.  For automobile-centric land uses, these can be changed over time through more sustainable development policies and infill development.  This change requires a long, generational view to see improvement.  They key here is to not continue creating the same issues, now that the problem has been identified.

People may also feel discouraged to engage in active transportation due to conscious or sub-conscious safety concerns.  For example, time spent cycling in mixed traffic is more onerous than time spent cycling on bike lanes or bike paths.  Winter maintenance is yet another concern, especially in Canada, and can be a challenge with seasonal snow and ice accumulation.  Structures can be especially bad when sidewalks are immediately adjacent to roadways where road ploughs regularly fill pedestrian areas with snow, instead of it being removed.

The Food We Eat

On the health side of the argument for engaging in active transportation, we are more likely to get moving if our bodies are in good shape to do so.  One of the building blocks to a healthy body is what we put into our bodies, our food.  In Western Society, it is more convenient to eat unhealthy and more of a challenge to eat healthier, wholesome ingredients.  It is a battle of will power in many cases and being prepared with healthy snack options when we feel a grumble in our stomachs.

One encouraging development I recently saw was Brazil’s 2014 Dietary Guidelines.  Compared with the grains, dairy, vegetables, meats, etc. found in the Canada and United States food guidelines, Brazil took a new approach to breaking down food, which should give us all pause for consideration.  In order of most frequently to least frequently recommended, we have:

  • Natural or minimally processed foods;
  • Oils, fats, salt, and sugar;
  • Processed foods; and
  • Ultra-processed foods.

Essentially, it boils down to eat natural foods first and most often, avoiding processed foods as much as possible.

Wrapping It Up

Considering my panel experience on active transportation and health, it was encouraging to see so many people interested and engaged in the topic for discussion.  Attitudes are changing, even if it takes time and effort to see results on the ground.  By advocating for this topic as individuals, we are engaging in social engineering with the aim of influencing popular attitudes, social behaviours, and resource management.  We are trying to find the leavers of change to modify this behaviour.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a challenge.  I challenge you to at least try active transportation (walking, biking, etc.) or transit for 1-2 weeks on your commute and see how you feel about the change.  Who knows, you may even prefer it, like I did.  Or, if not, at least you can say you tried.

What are your thoughts on active transportation and health?  Would you be willing to try active transportation? Why or why not?  How can we solve/improve our cities to make active transportation a preferred choice for commuting?

Author’s Note: Featured image source from Cyclepalooza.ca.