Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why "Dysfunctional Transportation" is major public health threat

And what we can do about it:

There can be little doubt that the best way of gauging the seriousness of the mounting problems of our present dysfunctional transportation arrangements - and hence the need for fast and effective remedies and adjustments -- is not so much from the usual purely transportation lens, or public works, or energy, nor even that of "environment" or land use - though all these are of course critical components of the challenges we need to resolve. Rather, above all we should be prepared to look at this from a public health perspective. It is only from this vantage that we can begin to appreciate the full range and degrees of severity of the problems that we are, in fact, resolutely refusing to face.

Public health Impacts: Public health broadly defined - as it must be - is heavily impacted by the dysfunctional parts of our transportation arrangements in every city in the world. Here are a rough dozen broad areas in which these impacts are being felt, and which therefore should make it clear why this is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately as a very high priority for the city and its region.

Let us start here with those that are most commonly associated with the 'public health' rubric, and then go on to list briefly yet others which in fact belong here as well.

1. Traffic Deaths and Injuries: We need to achieve major reductions in traffic deaths and injuries, most of which occur in or because of cars. We can do this if we chose to (and if you need a real world example check out the results of the several striking European examples of the past decade or so which have been sensational and entirely a function of political will and commitment from many levels of society).

2. Air pollution: Clean air must be a priority for the health of our citizens and their children. Driving a car is the most polluting act an average citizen commits. Adverse air quality can kill many organisms including humans. Air pollution can cause respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, throat inflammation, chest pain, and congestion.

3. Other forms of toxicity and pollution: Pollution from the transport sector takes other forms as well which also threaten public health significantly. Among them leakage of fuels and oils in normal operations or road traffic accidents, threats to underground water quality, various residues from vehicles, and others.

4. Traffic noise is a significant and increasingly targeted public health problem too. And while we are at it there are also such intrusions as odors and light pollution, each of which eat away at the health of those who are directly inflicted.

5. Destruction of urban form and quality of life: Roads and traffic are the life blood of a city -- but too much of both threatens the city's livability in many ways.

6. Life Styles: We increasingly need to promote healthier, more active life style. And in the process cut back on obesity for children and adults

7. Time Pollution: This is the first thing we all see and feel. As a result of our dysfunctional transportation arrangements, we are all spending far too much time stuck in traffic. This is taking away from the time we should be spending with our families, with our own personal development, on our neighbors, doing important work. The stress that is related to this significant time-deprivation does little to improve our health or that of our families.

8. Personal economics: We are spending significantly more on our transportation habit as individuals than we need to. All of us, car owners and others, can get around better, faster and more safely -- and for less money than most of us currently are putting out. And this too is a public health problem.

9. Total system costs, including subsidies, hidden and visible: Indeed if we add up the annual cost to society of these, let us call them "transport dysfunctonalities", we have a very very large number indeed in most of our cities, which at the very least should get our fullest attention. Overall we need to find ways to get a lot more bang per buck for the huge amount of money we spend on transport (so that we can free it for more important uses such as education, health, culture and more)

10. Medical resources: Our dysfunctional transport arrangements are present unnecessary pressure on our hospitals and public health programs - crowding them with patients and problems who really should not be there, and taking scarce resources that are much needed for other uses).

11. Passive citizenry: The present transportation paradigm defines the citizens of a city as passive agents, whose choices are largely made by "experts" and others who shape the system. But 21st century democracy requires an active civil society. For this to happen in the realm of mobility, a new paradigm of governance and action is required.

12. Climate modification. .. and finally back to Kyoto II: Everybody needs to do their bit to cut back on global warming. Rather than decreasing emissions by grams each year to get us back to 1990 levels - itself a proposal so timid as to warrant deep soul searching, -- our cities, all of them, are steadily doing worse every year when you look at the bottom line (e.g. CO2 emissions resulting from increased traffic volumes). Moreover there is no end in sight. If we cannot somehow come up with something that is consequential and will get these basic trends back in line, it will just continue to get worse year after year and the planet, your city and your country and more will all passively go to hell in a handbasket.

Putting this checklist to work for decision and investment purposes

This gives us an interesting checklist to ponder the difference between, say, Policy A and Policy B.

Let's take as "A" a proposal to invest hard-earned taxpayer dollars into an expanded roadway so as to be able to accommodate more private car traffic. And "B", say, as a proposal for a similar amount but this time to improve mobility for a vast majority of citizens through the introduction of a package of strategic car traffic reduction together with an integrated range of improved mobility services, combining traditional public transport but this time with privileged access to reserved portions of the road network, ride sharing, carsharing, new shared taxi and other shared small vehicle services, improved conditions for cyclist and pedestrians. Both for, say, the same amount of money.

Then run down the checklist, calculate the impacts as best possible so that we can to put dollar or other values to the changes brought about by A and B, and see what the bottom line looks like.

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