Two new studies shed light on the link between transportation and health

By Bill Holloway

Two new studies affirm the links between transportation, urban design, and health. One study, conducted in England, determined that providing free transit passes to senior citizens significantly increased their level of physical activity, and a second study in Canada affirmed the link between walkable neighborhoods and the incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

In 2006 England began offering seniors the National Bus Pass, which permits free local bus travel. The study examined the travel behavior of seniors before and after receiving the passes and confirmed a link – for seniors of both higher and lower socioeconomic strata – between having a bus pass and using active transportation modes, such as walking or riding the bus. However, the effects of providing free bus passes to American seniors could well be less apparent, as noted in an article about the research in Atlantic Cities, as a result of less accessible transit and generally less pedestrian-friendly development patterns.

The Canadian study on the connection between walkable neighborhoods and diabetes followed over 1.2 million Toronto residents who did not have diabetes over a five-year span, during which over 58,000 of them developed the disease. Using patients’ postal codes and information gleaned from their registration documents for the province’s health care plan, researchers were able to correlate the incidence of diabetes with recent immigrant status, income, and neighborhood walkability. Although all groups living in walkable areas—high-income recent immigrant, low-income recent immigrant, high-income long-term resident, and low-income long-term resident—exhibited significantly lower incidence of diabetes than their counterparts in the least walkable areas, the effect was greatest among low-income recent immigrants. While about 16 out of every 1,000 recent immigrants living in the least walkable areas developed diabetes during the study period, only 11 of those living in the most walkable areas developed the disease.

While the links between urban design, transportation, and health have been documented before, the real challenges remains quantifying the connections and incorporating the public health consequences of land use and transportation decisions into public policy.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.