Public Health and Livable Streets: Making the Connection

skeleton_bike.jpgThirty years ago the health arguments against car-dependence were 90 percent about air pollution and 10 percent about physical inactivity. Now, with tailpipe pollution down and obesity and diabetes up, those percentages are reversed. The latest evidence is a valuable new report, Steps to Get New Yorkers Moving (PDF file), from the Public Health Association of New York City.

Our city has a bad case of "sedentitis," says the report. One in four New Yorkers doesn’t exercise, and three of four don’t exercise enough. One in five of us is obese, one in thirteen has diabetes, and 40% of schoolkids are overweight.

Okay, we knew that. What’s different here is PHANYC’S solution: not banning transfats or greening school lunches – good things, to be sure – but "increasing opportunities for physical activity in our 6,000 miles of streets, 1,000+ schoolyards, 29,000 acres of parks, 600,000+ businesses, and 578 miles of waterfront."

And because most New Yorkers are short on time or cash or both, the City "needs to make the places where we spend most of our time – streets, parks, waterfronts, schools, workplaces and homes – more suitable for safe, accessible and affordable physical activity." Topping PHANYC’s priorities is a bunch of ways to make cycling and walking easier and safer: cutting traffic, curbing speeding, friendlier sidewalks and streets, and overhauling City DOT so it stops "putting the needs of cars and drivers first."

We knew that too. But what elicits yawns when uttered by biking and walking advocates carries weight coming from public health types. Which led us to ask why this venerable association of health care providers, health administrators, researchers, scientists and professors chose to focus on physical (in)activity.

"We’re very concerned about the rise in obesity and diabetes in New York City, said PHANYC president Nick Freudenberg, who teaches public health at Hunter, in an e-mail message. Diabetes is now the fourth leading cause of death here, and obesity is a recognized factor in morbidity and mortality. "We believe that improving opportunities for physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce and prevent obesity and diabetes," Freudenberg said. "In addition, physical activity has many other benefits, reducing other physical and mental health conditions and improving well-being."

I couldn’t have said it better myself. But why not just exhort people to exercise? "We chose a policy focus," Freudenberg replied, "because we feel that public action can facilitate, or impede, the needed individual behavior change." To replace sedentitis with healthful physical activity, "The city needs to move further from reliance on automobiles as a mode of transport, invest substantially in improving school conditions, and improve the quality and safety of New York’s parks and recreation facilities."

"Those fruits aren’t so low," cautioned Freudenberg, with the wisdom of one who understands the vast power of the city’s car-owning minority.

Still, the PHANYC report is a big step in the right direction at the right time. Mayor Bloomberg casts himself as a public-health guy. He gave $55 million to Johns Hopkins University, where the School of Public Health now bears his name. As mayor, he curbed cigarette smoking and is now weaning restaurants off artery-clogging trans-fats. He could hit the trifecta and reap perhaps his biggest public-health bonanza yet – physically active New Yorkers – by pulling the plug on car-dominance here once and for all.

Photo: Mike tn on Flickr

  • P

    Is this a scoop or is the report getting mainstream press coverage?

  • The report is out there but no one seems to have covered it, that I’ve seen, except Gotham Gazette.

  • JK

    Safe Routes to School — yes, yes, yes and much more of it.

    Keep the kids already walking to school on their feet. Get the kids being driven, out of the car.

    It’s fundamental. When you start seeing programs like Safe Routes understood as public health and sustainability efforts rather than ad hoc traffic safety fixes, you’ll know something good is happening.

  • Nicolo Machiavelli

    Important with regard to safe routes to school are the bad habits, moving violations and dangerous behavior of the many mommys and daddys who drive their children to school even in the city, forget the burbs. Unfortunately they are also an effective and articulate lobby for their own negative behavior.

  • Steve

    Nicolo is dead on concerning the parents dropping off their kids. Here a clip showing the mayhem created by parents at P.S. 87 this morning: .

    Why do so many parents with kids in this Upper West Side school drive them? Based purely on speculation, here are some of the reasons I can think of:

    1) Their morning routine involves dropping the kids off at school and then driving to work.

    2) They live outside the district and got a variance to enable their kids to attend this school. That may account for some, but probably not all of these parents.

    3) Today was alternate side of the street day on their block, so they had to move the car anyway, so why not drive a few blocks to school?

    4) They don’t understand or care about the opportunity to get physical exercise by walking or bicycling to school.

    How can anyone (including government) reach people like these driving their kids to school and get them to stop?


Health Dept: New Yorkers Get Their Exercise By Getting Around Town

The New York City Department of Health is out with a new bulletin [PDF] articulating the public health benefits of walking, biking, and taking transit. Encouraging those modes — and curbing the amount we drive — will reduce deaths and injuries from traffic crashes, prevent lung disease by lowering exposure to air pollution, and improve […]

City Council Moves on Environmental Health, But What About Tailpipes?

The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, covered in smog generated in large part by tailpipe emissions. Image: Wikimedia The New York City Council moved on two big pieces of environmental legislation last Wednesday. One bill was introduced which would require landlords to participate in a major public experiment to reduce asthma rates. A second, which passed […]

APTA Report Prescribes Public Transport to Improve Public Health

Transit 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 […]

Doctors’ Note Says Complete Streets Are Vital to New York’s Health

Transportation Alternatives and the New York Chapter of the American Association of Family Physicians today released a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, signed by 140 medical professionals from a broad spectrum of specialties, praising the city’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure as essential to the health of New Yorkers. It’s a solid counterweight to the hysteria surrounding […]