APTA Report Prescribes Public Transport to Improve Public Health

FatalitiesTransit.pngTransit use is correlated with decreases in the number of traffic crashes. Image: "Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits"

A new report written by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s Todd Litman for the American Public Transit Association [PDF], the trade organization for the nation’s transit agencies, reminds us that one of the most valuable benefits of transit is to our health. Summarizing the state of research in the field, "Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits" lays out the basic fact that increasing transit use is an easy way of preventing thousands of unnecessary deaths each year. 

The damage that our current transportation system does to our health is staggering. Each year, 40,000 Americans die in traffic crashes, according to the report, the equivalent of 1,186,070 years of life lost. Estimates attribute an equal number of deaths to motor vehicle air pollution, which tends to affect an older population. The number of deaths attributable to a third category of health impact, the sedentary lifestyle driving promotes, wasn’t estimated.

Importantly, the report points out that these tens of thousands of deaths, along with a number of injuries and illnesses an order of magnitude larger, aren’t the result of how we drive but of how much we drive. For example, the United States has by far the highest traffic fatality rate among its peer countries per capita, but not per mile driven (that title goes to Ireland). Americans die more because we drive more, not because we drive worse.

WalkingTransit.pngTransit riders of all income groups walk significantly more than non-transit users. Image: "Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits"

The good news is that transit provides proven health benefits. Public transit and transit-oriented development both reduce air pollution, research shows. Transit also increases physical activity. One of the studies detailed in Litman’s report found that Americans walk an average of six minutes per day overall but that transit riders walked an average of 19 minutes per day, pretty close to the medically recommended 22 minutes.

Put those together, and it’s no surprise that locations ranked higher on a "sprawl index" have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer after controlling for a slew of demographic factors. 

And of course, transit is very unlikely to crash; overall, it has only one-twentieth the passenger fatality rate of automobile travel. 

Finally, Litman offers some guidance for those looking to turn these health benefits into a monetary number, often a cold necessity for decision-makers constantly asked to justify the large price tag of a transit project. A variety of tools, like ICLEI’s Active Transport Quantification Tool or Litman’s own Transit Health Benefits Calculator [.xls] can help turn important health benefits into easy-to-compare numbers. 

One caveat: This report is an APTA project and the goal is to lay out the benefits of using transit, not necessarily to paint the fullest picture. The report’s argument that four percent of American children were unable to get important medical care because of inadequate treatment, for example, skips over the fact, found in the cited study, that those children primarily lived in rural areas that are often poor targets for transit. The health benefits of transit, as catalogued here, are completely real, but as you read the report, take it with a grain of salt.

  • If Americans seriously want to combat the obesity epidemic, quality public transportation would be a great first step, as this study proves. It’s going to take serious infrastructure improvements to get most Americans up and out of their cars. Ultimately, transportation is about much more than health and happiness. Equitable transportation provides access to economic opportunity, medical care, places of worship, and neighboring communities. To join the fight for equitable transportation in your area, go to http://www.transportationequity.org and find a TEN affiliate near you.

  • For multiple decades, the experts have known of Smeed’s research into the correlation between vehicle fatalities and the amount of driving. For APTA to publish something related to it and pretend it’s new is very disingenuous.

  • Interesting but pretty obvious stuff from a transit interest group.

  • Matthew Roth

    I can’t believe the average American only walks 6 minutes a day. That’s deplorable. Too bad reforming automobility wasn’t a key tenet in the healthcare overhaul ūüôā

  • Matthew Roth

    wait, autoimmobility.

  • So let’s see:

    People in car-dependent communities have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, strokes, asthma, hypertension and depression. They also die or are injured frequently in car crashes, and a sizable portion of their yearly income goes to buying/operating/maintaining cars.

    People in communities with high quality transit live longer, healthier lives because of increased physical activity and less exposure to pollution. They also tend to bike and walk more in addition to taking public transit. All this results in their health care costs being dramatically lower. In addition, because their neighborhoods are safe to walk in, they are less depressed and more connected to their community. They tend to own fewer cars and so have more money for food and other things.

    For so many millennia, humans have aspired to the lifestyle of the idle rich. No sweating, no physical exertion, no toil. With the magic of oil, we have largely achieved this–physical movement is almost entirely unnecessary in the lives of most Americans. The problem is, it’s made us sick and unhappy and dependent on ingesting large amounts of pharmaceuticals.

    Sadly, there are more profits to be found in sickness than in health, in gasoline than in shoe leather, in cars than in bicycles, in suburban McMansions than in light rail.

    I do think there’s a sea change afloat, but in some ways it’s astonishing how extreme we allowed the harm to get before we were willing to change. Oil is an amazing conveyor of energy but it’s been a curse as much as a boon.

  • Bob Davis

    Taomom, you hit the nail on its proverbial head–Even working class people in the US can “emulate the idle rich.” This is one reason why getting Americans to give up their automotive “lifestyle” is such a “hard sell”. Buses are seen as poor folks’ transportation. Bicycles are for poor folks, tree-huggers and masochistic health nuts. Today, ordinary citizens ride around in cars that are speedier and more comfortable than the king’s royal coach of the olden days. The king had to wait for a wandering minstrel to show up; we have a world of musical entertainment at our fingertips.

  • john

    As shocking as this may be to New Yorkers and others who live in walkable communities, it is real. Everyday we witness the growing inability of people to walk correctly since the only time these people do it is in parking lots taking short walks from their cars to the store.

  • Art

    I would like to relate my personal experience which relates to this article, but in a decidedly novel location. I am a suburban dweller with very poor transportation system which I haven’t used at all in all the years I have lived in my community. But a couple of years ago, I, together with my family, visited Disney World in Orlando for five days. As most of you know, these theme parks are automobile free, and we also utilized the shuttle buses that take you from hotels to the parks.

    On that trip, I lost weight without having to resort to any tricks or drugs, and had the most fun doing it and felt better than I had for a long time. I attribute all of that to automobile-free living, even for a few days. So I think we should be using public transportation for our vacations and sight-seeing visits. The following may be of interest to people planning a visit to New York City: http://www.greenurbantours.com

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