Monday, August 12, 2013

Our transportation system and its impact on human health

One of the legislative requirements for TransLink is to complete a 30-year long-term transportation strategy that must be updated every five years. In an ideal world, this long term plan guides TransLink’s annual base and supplemental transportation and financial plans. The last long-term transportation strategy, Transport 2040, was released in 2008. An update is due for the long-term plan, and TransLink has be busy putting it together.

One of the interesting things about this long-term plan update is that TransLink has put together a series of detailed research papers on key issues that impact livability in relation to our transportation system in Metro Vancouver. Early last month, I posted my thoughts about the research paper TransLink put together on parking requirements in the region. Today, I’d like to highlight the research paper that they commissioned from the Health & Community Design Lab at UBC.

As noted in the research paper, 41% of the annual provincial budget is dedicated to health spending with less than 10% spent on preventative healthcare. According to the research, “a significant portion of this budget is related to preventable chronic conditions, including obesity, which currently produce more than $860 million in direct and indirect health care costs in each year.” Health spending continues to increase, so business as usual is not sustainable. One of the areas that has received little attention over the years is the link between our built form (land-use and transportation) and health outcomes. The following graphic shows the link between these two.

Built Environment & Health Linkages

Our built-form can play a larger rolling in making a healthier population and reducing health related government spending.

Right now our current auto-oriented transportation system presents a quadruple-threat to human health. Auto-oriented transportation systems have been shown to increase rates of obesity. Vehicle emissions have been linked to causing premature death in venerable populations, such as those with respiratory illness, seniors, and children. The high-volume, and high-speed of vehicles in auto-oriented communities cause an increase in fatalities from collisions. There is even “mounting evidence that cardiovascular health is harmed by exposure to traffic noise.”

It’s not all bad news though, because communities that are designed around active transportation and transit have a quadruple-benefit to society and human health. According to the research paper “an individual's travel behaviour is one of the most telling indicators of physical activity levels given that different travel modes inherently require different amounts of physical activity.” For example, people who take transit regularly get about eight more minutes of moderate physical daily activity than people who drive to work. This eight minutes a day can actually result in weight loss and lower the risk of getting a chronic health condition. Walkable neighbourhoods have also been shown to have a positive effect on mental health. When you reduce the amount of vehicles on the road and the speed at which they are traveling (as a result of prioritizing other modes of travel) collisions and harmful emissions are also reduced.

One of the thing that frustrates me is that there is a mountain of evidence that shows that how we are building communities, currently, is bad for human health, economic return, and the environment. It seems silly to me that the Ministry of Transportation has an infrastructure program that actually increases health spending in the province.

One of the recommendation in the report is that local governments, Metro Vancouver, TransLink, Regional Health Authorities, The Ministry of Transportation and The Ministry of Health, work together on built-form policy. Maybe as part of every local, regional, and provincial land-use and transportation plan there should be a section on how it will impact human health and health spending?

TransLink has a series of other research papers on their website as part of the RTP process which are worth checking out.

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