Cities that promote walking, bicycling and public transportation can expect a drop in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, a new study suggests.
The findings stem from an international study led by the University of Melbourne in Australia and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
The goal: To see how city design – including street layout and access to shopping within walking distance – affects the environment and health in places like Boston; Copenhagen; Delhi, India, London and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Team members reported their findings Friday during a meeting at the U.N. General Assembly. The findings were also reported in the latest issue of The Lancet.
“With the world’s population estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and three quarters of this population living in cities, city planning must be part of a comprehensive solution to tackling adverse health outcomes,” report co-author Billie Giles-Corti said in a Lancet news release. Giles-Corti is lead investigator at the NHMRC Center for Research Excellence in Healthy Livable Communities at the University of Melbourne.
In the 19th century, she said, city planning helped curb outbreaks of infectious disease through improvement in sanitation, housing and efforts to separate housing and industrial areas.
“Today, there is a real opportunity for city planning to reduce non-communicable diseases and road trauma, and to promote health and well-being more broadly,” Giles-Corti added.
The researchers used computer models to study several factors that could affect a city’s quality of life. Among them: how far people must travel to shop; availability and safety of bike paths; parking costs; and access to public transportation.
If Boston were to put the policies in place, it could expect the rates of heart disease to drop 15% and type 2 diabetes by 11%, the research team said. Other cities studies would see similar health gains.
City and state planners need to look further ahead. All communities should have a 5, 10, and 25 year plans to reduce our dependence on the automobile as the primary mode of transportation. This study just scratches the surface of the potential health benefits associated with these simple changes.
Throughout the country, communities are converting abandon railroad lines to bicycle and walking paths. The rails-to-trails foundation matches local funds with federal funds to acquire and convert these unused routes. The East Coast Greenway will eventually extend from Northern Maine to Key West, Florida. Many sections have already been completed.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, an abandon rail line that runs east-west below the street level now boasts a average of 80,000 bike riders per day, mostly commuters going to and from work. In the winter, this path is plowed prior to the streets as bike traffic is higher than the vehicle traffic. The images of people riding their bikes to work in the Minnesota winters is almost comical, but they do it.
The Bottom Line:
Take a look at your lifestyle – where could you walk or ride rather than take the car? Encourage your local elected officials to be forward thinking and add pedestrian transportation to their short and long term goals.
Source: September 23, 2016 National Institutes of Health