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The Health Benefits of Public Transport

Authored by Simeon Swaby


The daily commute: an important tradition for many American households. Every day, millions of Americans make the journey from home to the workplace, spending large amounts of time riding, biking, or walking to their destination. Among these modes of transport, the automobile is by far the most popular. Despite their popularity, however, automobiles have their downsides. Traffic congestion has increased substantially since the mid 1970s, extending drive times and leading to  the loss of hours of productivity [1]. Worst of all, driving comes with many health drawbacks including increased risk of obesity, stress, physical injury, and pollution [2]. How, then, can policymakers ensure a good standard of health and safety, while also meeting the needs of a constantly mobile population? Public transport can tackle these problems by presenting  a more efficient form of travel, while also benefiting the health of individuals and communities.  


Although about 76% of Americans use cars as their main form of transport, public transport is a popular alternative for those who want to avoid the daily drive [3]. Around one in 10 Americans opt to use public transit, which includes buses, subways, and light rail [4]. 


When it comes to its health benefits, public transit can increase one’s physical mobility by encouraging walking to and from the home and stations. This physical activity is known as ‘Active Transport’ and it could be in  the form of walking, cycling, and the utilization of public transport options themselves [5].


Public transit is also a much safer form of travel than driving. In a research paper published by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, compared to automobile fatality rates of two deaths per 10,000 of the population, public transit’s fatalities are just one-twentieth of automobiles [6]. Communities that are built around multiple transit options also tend to have reduced traffic accidents, reduced speeds for cars, and lower mileage per vehicle, which fosters a safer environment for both pedestrians and drivers [6]. Along with ensuring their riders’ physical wellbeing, public transit can benefit individuals’ mental wellbeing: the same study shows improvements in residents’ ability to access recreational facilities, as well as fostering social connections with others in the community [6].  For many, it can simply be less stressful to hop on  a train or bus, than to worry about driving. As someone who has both driven and taken the train to school and back, I can attest that transit offers a much smoother and less mentally taxing experience.  


Notably, it is  the health of lower-income communities that could benefit the most from increased availability of public transport. Public transit can provide greater accessibility to important services such as job opportunities, food, and medical care. In a study conducted  by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, residents from the rural Doña Ana County in New Mexico were asked  how much they use public transport (in this case, buses) and whether they would support an expansion to public transportation services [7]. Within a two year period, the study found that 22% of bus riders used the bus to access medical services, with 24% using it to get to work [7]. Overall, 84% said they would support an expansion of the system to access health services. Moreover, participants were able to rank their top five reasons for taking these trips: this included getting to medical appointments, obtaining medication, and shopping for food at supermarkets [7]. The study showed other benefits too, such as increased physical activity and decreased pollution from personal vehicles. These findings point toward the benefits that public transport can provide to low-income rural communities that struggle with accessing food and health services.         


Although the inclusion of public transport into more communities could undoubtedly improve the health of residents, there are many roadblocks towards its implementation; namely, the  potential cost of such systems. The journal’s report states that while expanding Doña County’s Public Transportation would expand residents' access to jobs and indirectly improve their health , one major drawback  would be “the cost of the system, which must be borne mostly by taxpayers in Doña Ana County [7].” The expansion of public transportation options could also put stress on the already worn roads and infrastructure, which could add further economic strain to an already precarious community [7]. It’s no secret that the resources required to operate a public transportation system, even for a county as small as Doña Ana, could be a serious cost-sink. However, it could be argued that the long-term benefits of a widespread transport system could outweigh its initial cost [7]. Another major setback is disease prevention. In the aftermath of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, it’s become more important than ever to slow the spread of disease in public settings such as trains or buses [8]. If such a communicable disease were to ever appear again, transport authorities would need to pay attention to safety standards to ensure the public continues to have faith in transit. The CDC has already recommended individuals wear masks while taking public transport to prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19 [9]. Transit organizations all over the country have taken precautions to prevent spread, including the implementation of preventative disinfection, enhancing ventilation, and increased communication with the public [10]. Through these initiatives, American public transit could further improve and more will be able to reap the health benefits that come with widespread transit.  


References

  1. Falcocchio, J. C., & Levinson, H. S. (1970, January 1). Historical perspective of urban traffic congestion. SpringerLink. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-15165-6_3#:~:text=Congestion%20is%20not%20new.,all%20were%20overcrowded%20and%20congested

  2. Ding, Ding, et al. “Driving: A Road to Unhealthy Lifestyles and Poor Health Outcomes.” PloS One, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 June 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049576/. 

  3. “Cars Still Dominate the American Commute.” World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/05/commute-america-sustainability-cars/

  4. Anderson, Monica. “WHO Relies on Public Transit in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/07/who-relies-on-public-transit-in-the-u-s/

  5. Brown, Vicki, et al. “Better Transport Accessibility, Better Health: A Health Economic Impact Assessment Study for Melbourne, Australia.” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 22 Oct. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6805526/

  6. Victoria Transport Institute - Main Page. https://vtpi.org/tran_health.pdf

  7. Del Rio, Michelle, et al. “Transportation Matters: A Health Impact Assessment in Rural New Mexico.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 13 June 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5486315/

  8. Drummond , Justin, and Sami Hasnine . “Did the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Impact Transportation Demand? A Case Study in New York City.” Journal of Transport & Health, Elsevier, 28 Nov. 2022, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214140522002110

  9. “International Travel to and from the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/international-travel-during-covid19.html

  10. Shen, J., Duan, H., Zhang, B., Wang, J., Ji, J. S., Wang, J., Pan, L., Wang, X., Zhao, K., Ying, B., Tang, S., Zhang, J., Liang, C., Sun, H., Lv, Y., Li, Y., Li, T., Li, L., Liu, H., … Shi, X. (2020, November). Prevention and control of COVID-19 in public transportation: Experience from China. Environmental pollution (Barking, Essex : 1987). Retrieved March 18, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7833563/ 

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