How layout of a community can affect our health

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Aug 28, 2014 4:00 AM

(Harrisburg) -- For many in the midstate, there’s only one reasonable option for getting to work: getting in the car. The day might go something like this: sit in the car on the way to work, sit at a desk at work, sit in the car on the way home from work.  But it doesn’t have to be so easy to shrug off walking, biking, or taking public transportation. And there’s evidence a communities design can eventually affect our health.


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Carli Feldman walks about 15 minutes each way to work most days.

Start with Carli Feldman. Four or five times a week, she walks to work in downtown Harrisburg along Front Street in no more than 15 minutes. Because she uses her feet instead of a two ton mass of steel to get to work, she and her husband can split a car between the two of them without much impact.

"You have the walk to get to look at all the buildings. Actually recently, there’s been some tax sales, so you can kinda see what’s going on in the city, instead of just what’s on the roadways, which is nice."

Feldman says her stroll to and from work is like a decompression time, using it to make a phone call, meet people on the street, or listen to a podcast. 

"We do know that people who have higher rates of walking and biking have better overall health outcomes," says Caroline Rodier, a research associate at Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State in California.

Rodier was the lead author on a study published this past April. And it might sound logical that physical activity is better than no exercise. Rodier’s study used simulations to predict whether the benefits of walking or biking outweigh increased exposure to pollution and safety risks.


"Well yeah. Insofar as we know that people who walk and bike more have better health outcomes. And there is some evidence that as much as 10 minutes or more a day is beneficial."

Rodier’s study estimates that if drivers were charged for every mile traveled, walking would increase by about 10 percent, and biking by nearly 20 percent.

Take a step back though, and look at why people choose to do what they do. Financial incentives or penalties might be one option after the a community is set up, but Tom Schmid at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if communities are designed with bike and walking trails running from neighborhoods to downtowns, shopping, and grocery stores, people will respond.

"I think there’s pretty strong evidence that the way transportation infrastructure is developed has an influence on people’s physical activity."

Schmid leads a team that researches how to promote physical activity and health in general, and breaks down the conclusions into recommendations that others can easily understand.

"And then a more recent study, looked at it a little bit more carefully, and with these what they call accelerometers and GPS kinds of measures, they found that people who use transit get about 15 minutes more walking than people who are not using transit. But in day when they're not using transit, like the weekends, they have similar patterns of behavior to the others."

Essentially, Schmid is saying the study found that some might have a car and use it on the weekends, but it may be convenient for them to take transit during the week, and as a result, they walk more.

"Our behaviors are kinda set based on the policies and the planning that we’ve done in the past. We’ve kinda set ourselves up for having no choice but to be in our car," says Diane Myers Krug, Associate Director at Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. She acknowledges the light density of the suburbs doesn’t really support public transit.


So what now? Krug says suburbs can get “retrofitted”, like taking a quarter full shopping center parking lot and turning it into apartments or a park, or slowly adding houses to the typical suburban neighborhood with a cul-de-sac. Both options add density, and could eventually make public transportation more viable. In the meantime, there's some solutions.

"Using something called complete streets, where the streets aren't just just designed for the vehicle anymore but for the transit rider and for the bicyclist and the pedestrian. All modes are being taken into consideration," says Justin Lehman, a public health program administrator with the Department of Health. He cites Lancaster and York as two cities taking positive steps now.

The question of what comes first – the infrastructure or the attitude shift – has persisted in this discussion for years though. Opponents argue too few people demand bike lanes or walking paths. Yet in a pilot program, the federal Department of Transportation invested $25 million in 4 different communities, and across the board, walking trips jumped by 23 percent and biking by nearly 50 percent.

"So these communities really did see a change in people’s behavior with primarily infrastructure change. A small amount of marketing, but most of it was just providing the facilities," says Schmid.

Remember, all of this is geared towards getting people out of cars and onto sidewalks, bike paths, and public transportation, but potential improvements in health might be another card in the deck used to persuade those to shed the car.

For Carli Feldman, the health benefits are a plus, but she’s also realistic.

"I’m sure it helps, but then the chips that I eat at lunch kinda of like take that back. I guess its healthier than not walking."

The question left for researchers who have evidence on their side is how to sell changes to many who have been conditioned to expect the car as a necessity for work, and as a result, may be missing out on a chance to stay healthy.

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