Plan transportation with good health in mind: Vincent Lam’s Big Idea

Vincent Lam, The Star
February 8, 2014

Illustration by Luis Ledesma

What if …

… every city transportation planning decision were accompanied by the question: “Does this improve health in Toronto?” We would consider that men who walk or cycle to work are half as likely to be obese, that each kilometre walked per day reduces obesity by 4.8 per cent, and that each hour spent in the car increases it by 6 per cent. We would consider that active commuting is associated with an 11-per-cent reduction in cardiovascular risk, with diabetes prevention and with reduced risk of cancer. We would conclude that transportation planning that explicitly supports cycling and walking would improve health in Toronto.

How would your big idea transform Toronto?

In Toronto, 55 per cent of trips are under seven km, and 20 per cent are under two km, distances amenable to cycling and walking respectively. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults exercise 150 minutes weekly, or half an hour five days per week. Roughly, that’s a 7.5 km bike trip or a two km walk. Public transit is also pro-activity, as transit users walk an average of 8.3 minutes more per day than non-users. Research shows that people are much more successful at maintaining physical activity when incorporated into daily life than when it is dependent on gyms. In Toronto, only 42 per cent of adults are physically active in their leisure time, 40 per cent are overweight or obese, and a gym membership costs as much as a parking spot. Walking and cycling for transportation have been shown to be as effective as traditionally structured exercise programs in improving activity levels, cardio-respiratory fitness and blood pressure, thereby saving both the membership dues and the parking fees.

How much would your idea cost?

As responsible stewards of public funds, we must ask, “What is a cost-effective way to both move people around our city and improve health?” In Canada, physical inactivity is directly associated with $1.6 billion in annual health costs, and $3.7 billion in annual productivity loss. Spending on walking and cycling infrastructure has been studied, and is highly cost-effective. Cost-benefit ratios in 16 studies show a median health benefit to cost ratio of 5:1. I’ll take a 500 per cent return on my invested tax dollars any day. Especially if it’s making me more healthy.

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