Cars, Sprawl Are Killing Us: American Public Health Association

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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Cars, Sprawl Are Killing Us: American Public Health Association

If there is any doubt that locating in car-oriented poor-transit served office parks and residing in likewise-vehicle-dependent low-density suburbs are injurious to our health--and one reason why healthcare costs are so high--a new report by the American Public Health Association, "The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation," should quell them.

The report's data indicates that if organizations truly want to make a difference in their costs, environment and quality of life that they need to get out of the "parks" altogether. For no matter how "green" the buildings in energy efficiency the dirt from the pollution and other even more deadly and expensive impacts on public health from car dependence resulting from their locations far outweigh the benefits.

This comprehensive study, prepared for the APHA by UrbanDesign 4Health examines all impacts and their staggering costs in 2008 dollars from transportation and land use that is shaped by and which shapes transportation choices. These include accidents, air pollution and obesity including administrative expenses (such as billing and contact centers) and where appropriate lost productivity and wages, property damage, travel delays and costs due to pain, suffering and lost quality of life and premature death.

The toll from cars in poor air quality alone range from $50 billion to $80 billion per year. Yet even that high amount is overshadowed by the costs of accidents that reach about $180 billion annually.

(Keep in mind that hybrids and zero emission vehicles also create pollution from extracting, refining and distributing petroleum products, in highway construction and maintenance, and in emergency vehicles responding to accidents. Like the one my paramedic stepson works out of, scraping motorists and truckers out of their vehicles and hauling them to the ER. Then again thanks to car commuters he has a great job and future.)

Then there is obesity. Car dependence: driving and driving others makes us and them fat because we're not exercising, leading to a vast range of horrible ailments including diabetes and heart disease, and ca-chinging up to $142 billion per year.

(This is more good news from my stepson and his young family; more bad news for everyone else and society as a whole.)

The physical toll is head-shaking. Traffic crashes causes over 40,000 deaths annually, say the report. Some 35 million people live within 300 feet of a major roadway, and are at higher risk of respiratory illness due to exposure to traffic-related air pollution. At the same time about one-third of adults are estimated to be obese and another third are overweight "due in part to sedentary lifestyles and the lack of opportunity for everyday physical activity."

Add these factors together and they are responsible for over nine percent of the U.S's fast-rising healthcare bill: from $2.4 trillion in 2008 to $3.1 trillion in 2012, and $4.3 trillion by 2016.

 "The consequences of inactivity, obesity, exposure to air pollution, and traffic crashes in the U.S. are staggering when viewed in terms of cost," says the report. "Tragically, these costs are also largely preventable. "

To enable such prevention requires a serious adjustment in transportation financing and decisions. The APHA report says that much more work is needed in the area of health evaluation and cost assessment in transportation policy. There also needs to be investments in healthier transportation. It recommends a few key policy changes to achieve these objectives, among them:

* Encourage federal planning, funding practices, and decisionmaking to include health impacts, costs and benefits

* Support development of healthy communities, active transport and incentives for transportation investments that support health

* Promote measurement and evaluation of health, safety and equity in planning and development processes

* Fund research to evaluate health impacts and costs of transportation and land use actions

That means more bus, rail and ferry transit and sidewalks and bike paths as opposed to arterials and freeways and more traditional pedestrian-friendly compact development and fewer subdivisions. The report outlines several illustrative examples.

 "Our country depends on a robust transportation system that facilitates easy, safe commutes and promotes physical activity in order to reduce the burden of death and disease and improve health outcomes of all communities," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

With companies picking up the tab for health insurance there are steps that they can take to do their share i.e. "think globally, act locally", which benefits the bottom line while shrinking those on their employees' physiques:

* Shrink the office by deploying telecommuting and encouraging employees to use the time saved to work out every day

* Move to offices and sites on high-transit-served corridors

* Dump the gym. They cost money, pose liability and potential harassment issues and lower-ranked staff especially (such as contact center agents) want to get the Hades out of there when their shift ends; when they clock out their time is theirs.

Instead if you own/lease employee parking then charge employees for it while level the playing field with alternative modes by paying for bike racks and transit passes

* Support transit investments and urge polluter-pay programs

By solid actions recommended by the APHA report and individual corporate practices and advocacy together we could achieve a greener, cleaner, healthier and safer environment.

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