Bicycling for transportation is a healthy choice. Pedaling a bicycle is physical activity that burns calories that keeps hearts healthy. But, what other benefits can transportation have on public health? What other potential does a Bike Share program or a multi-use-trail have in motivating people to improve their physical and mental health, or their ability to access fresh, healthy groceries for their families?
Common Ground Health, a regional health planning organization, and the Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) partnered on an effort where, together, they posed the same questions with an eye towards future planning goals in both realms.
In seeking the answers to the correlation between transportation and current health statistics and trends, with the desire to use a proven, industry-endorsed approach, Common Ground Health led the march to conduct two Health Impact Assessments; uncharted territory for both organizations.
Specifically, they assessed the Rochester Bike Share Program and the Genesee Valley Greenway trail as examples of transportation plans that could be shaped to address public health disparities.
As defined by the National Research Council, a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is a structured process that uses scientific data, professional expertise, and stakeholder input to identify and evaluate public health consequences of proposals and suggests actions that could be taken to minimize adverse health impacts and optimize beneficial ones.
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, a respected, not-for-profit organization that provides facts and science for use in public policy, “decision makers at all levels are using the fast-growing field of HIA to take health into account when making decisions in a broad range of sectors, including agriculture, education, energy and budgeting, in all types of locations--rural, suburban, and urban, local, regional or statewide.”
Pew, which works in partnership to oversee the Health Impact Project, hosts a clearinghouse of more than 400 individual HIAs, conducted by government agencies, educational institutions, not-for-profit organizations, or collaborations, in the United States. As of July 2018, seventy-five fell under the transportation sector. Of those, about a dozen assessed health impacts of bicycle/pedestrian projects. Less than 10 were conducted by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO). Kansas University School of Preventive Medicine and Public Health is the only other entity that completed an assessment of a bike share program in Topeka, Kansas in 2015.
GTC is on the leading edge of MPOs using HIAs in transportation planning. It has only been within the last few years that GTC has put an emphasis on using the HIA process to more prominently consider the potential benefits to public health in transportation planning.
The role the transportation system plays in public health, beyond personal safety and air quality, is called out as an emerging opportunity in GTC’s Long Range Transportation Plan. The goal to reverse the trend of younger generations living in poor health and making it easier for seniors to remain in their community longer as they age is a realistic one.
This project, “Advancing Health Informed Transportation Decisions” (UPWP Task 5241) was jointly funded with federal planning funds made available through GTC’s Unified Planning Work Program and with contributions from Common Ground Health. GTC and Common Ground Health entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to conduct this project. GTC programmed Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Metropolitan Planning funds (PL) to provide two-thirds of the budget. Common Ground Health provided staff to conduct two HIAs and the remaining one-third of the budget.
The project to advance both HIAs was guided by a Steering Committee that consisted of representatives from the Monroe and Livingston County planning offices, the City of Rochester, Parks and Trails New York, the University of Rochester, Genesee Valley Greenway State Park, and Conkey Cruisers, a local, urban, community group focused on bicycling led by a health advocate. The assessment itself was researched, developed and written by staff at Common Ground Health and reviewed by GTC staff.
Opportunities to positively impact current public health issues through transportation investments surely exist, but not if the right questions don’t get asked.
Link to full report: HIA of the Rochester Bike Share.
The study looked at four factors that affect public health, factors often referred to as the social determinants of health.
- Physical activity: Approximately 63 percent of Monroe County's adult population is obese or overweight. Providing opportunities in urban areas for increased active transportation encourages physical activity.
- Economic benefit and equity: Active transportation and cycling in particular can reduce personal transportation costs. According to the American Automobile Association, the average cost of owning a car was $8,469 a year in 2017. By contrast, most bike share programs cost $50 to $100 annually.
- Social cohesion: Communities with greater levels of participation in community activities have better health outcomes than those with less engagement. Bike share has proven to be one of the most effective ways to introduce new riders to cycling, fostering further interest in active transportation.
- Access to food: Poor access to supermarkets has been linked to increased health disparities, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Bike shares offer a new way to travel to grocery stores, farm markets and other fruit and vegetable retailers.
To encourage healthier lifestyles that can combat chronic illness, the study recommends:
- Improving the bike share payment system to allow residents without credit cards access to bikes
- Partnering with local institutions and groups to subsidize membership for low-income city residents
- Providing education about the use of the bike share program and the benefits of cycling
- Continuing to improve infrastructure such as bike lanes and sidewalks.
- Locating bike share stations close to grocery stores, parks and other community resources
- Prioritize neighborhoods with poorer health when siting new bike share stations.