From Betsy Christensen, MPH Candidate, University of Minnesota School of Public Health and TLC intern
Improving public transit and creating more walkable neighborhoods can be one of the most cost effective ways to achieve public health objectives.
Before we get into details, there are a few things you should know about me. I live in Saint Paul yet do venture across the river into Minneapolis quite regularly and I do not have a car. Saint Paul is a great place to live; 95% of my friends, however, haven’t been enlightened, which means I head across the river to enter my social network. Since I have no vehicle and have a streak of stubborn independence (read: I will never ask for a ride, ever.), I have become a regular transit rider and city biking enthusiast.
Take a moment to think about all of the places you travel to in a day – go the gym for a morning workout, take your kids and/or yourself to school, work across the city, visit that favorite café for lunch to catch up with friends, stop at the grocery store, etc. Now, think about how you travel to all of your daily destinations – do you have the option of walking, biking, driving, riding the bus, riding the light rail? Do you choose your mode of transportation or does our current transportation system frequently make it seem like a car is your only option?
Transportation is a major part of our lives. Not everyone drives, not everyone bikes, and not everyone rides the bus. A balanced transportation system that accommodates all modes, all users, and all abilities benefits everybody.Forty percent of Minnesotans do not drive for various reasons – age, disability, or financial costs (source: MN Complete Streets Toolkit). Nationwide, 60% of Americans would rather drive less and walk more, yet 73% reported they feel they currently have no choice but drive to destinations (source: Surface Transportation Policy Partnership).
Quality public transit and transit-oriented development reduce traffic crashes, improve air quality, increase daily physical activity, boost social well being, and improve access to healthcare services and healthy food options. These public health benefits are increasingly recognized as central to economically-vibrant metropolitan regions. A shift towards less driving and more transit use improves our health, but in order to make this shift we need to support policies and systems that promote the design and development of healthy, more livable communities.
Quality public transit reduces traffic crashes and improves safety
Much has been done to improve the safety of automobiles and highways, yet the desire for speed continues to have implications for our safety and health care costs. Approximately 2.5 million people are injured on our roads every year (source: NHTSA). Communities with high-quality transit experience 75% less per capita traffic fatality rates than those experienced by sprawling, auto-oriented communities (source: Victoria Transport Policy Institute).
Quality public transit improves air quality
Breathing clean air should be a right and not a privilege based on where on lives. Thirty-five million people live within 300 feet of a major roadway, increasing their risk for respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, heart disease, and death related to air pollution from traffic (source: APHA). In Minneapolis-Saint Paul, these air pollution health impacts are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods.
Quality public transit increases physical activity
Most transit trips begin with a walk or bike ride. Public transit users walk about 19 minutes per day compared to only 6 minutes per day for non-transit users (source: Werner & Evans, 2007). Community design is key – walkable, mixed use communities support healthier residents and visitors. People with safe places to walk near home are twice as likely to meet physical activity targets (source: Victoria Transport Policy Institute). It’s much easier to be active and reach the goal of 22 minutes each day (or 150 minutes each week), when it fits easily into your daily schedule. I look forward to my commute every single day – I love hopping on my bike or walking to the bus stop.
Quality public transit improves mental and social well being
More than half of all trips nationwide are less than 3 miles in distance, yet 72% of these trips are made by car (source: Federal Highway Administration). Biking to the café, taking a 15 minute stroll, or riding transit all result in more time in one’s neighborhood, increasing interactions between neighbors and building community cohesion (source: APHA). Increased walkability is also associated with reduced symptoms of depression (source: Berke, Gottlieb & Larson, 2007). A high-quality public transit system increases access to basic needs including healthcare services, employment, educational opportunities, and healthy food options.
As a public health student and a regular bicyclist, walker and bus rider, I am aware of both the societal benefits and the personal benefits of not being wedded to a car. As an intern at Transit for Livable Communities, I have learned about the importance of advocating for a transportation system that gets everyone where they need to go in a convenient, sustainable and healthy fashion. I hope you will join the growing movement of Twin Cities residents who feel the same.