Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 19th, 2012

Another reason why the province needs to fund transit

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Thanks to Spacing Vancouver‘s mis-transcription of a headline I have come across some very important, Canadian, research. This shows that spending billions of dollars widening a freeway, including the widest  bridge in the world, is going to be costing us huge amounts of public funds long into the future.

 

This is a screen shot of the day’s headlines – and it was that first story I noticed. Actually the story is titled

An Alarmingly Strong Link Between Lack of Walkability and Diabetes

and I have left that as a headline and made it a clickable link. A new study out of Toronto just published online in the journal Diabetes Care shows that if you live in a place where walking is difficult – like most new subdivisions – you have a much higher risk of developing diabetes.

The study looked at just about everyone in Toronto aged 30-64 – the population experiencing the most rapid rise of diabetes incidence – and singled out those who did not have diabetes as of March 31, 2005. The study followed these people over the next five years: in all, 1,239,262 of them, including 214,882 who appeared to be recent immigrants based on registration in the province’s healthcare plan.

By March of 2010, 58,544 of these people had developed diabetes. And the walkability of the communities in which they lived turned out to be closely linked to that outcome (given the complex factors that affect health, the researchers acknowledge that they can’t definitively say this relationship is directly causal).

Maybe not definitively, but it is well known that the lack of physical activity is directly related to a range of conditions – heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Moreover, while you can live in a new suburb without sidewalks, drive everywhere and also exercise a lot (join a gym, run with your dog …) most people don’t. Although I do have to say that when you go to places like Buntzen Lake at the weekend and just see the numbers of people who do take exercise seriously,  my hopes increase.

The point I am trying to make here is neatly captured at the end of the Atlantic article

The Toronto study highlights that within urbanized areas, the impact of neighborhoods on public health can vary significantly. And so there’s hope for applying this lesson in the parts of the world that have yet to urbanize, as well as within cities like Toronto as they continue to grow. It’s no coincidence that the least walkable neighborhoods identified in this research were often the most recently developed. Unlike their older counterparts, they had large blocks instead of smaller ones, sprawling development instead of density, separated land uses instead of mixed ones.

The doctors and public health researchers behind this paper noted all of these differences, sounding remarkably like urban planners themselves. Reaching across disciplines, they conclude: “the way we structure and build our cities will play an increasingly greater role in shaping the health of the world’s population.”

Now we know that among the challenges facing the current government is the ever increasing rise in public health care costs. They are always looking to find ways of passing that along – BC being one of the very few Canadian provinces that levy a Medical Services Premium. “Slashing costs” through privatizing jobs like cleaning and looking after people who don’t need hospitals but do need long term care has also been a favourite. Perhaps less well publicized has been a recent shift in the way the government treats its own pensioners. The Public Service Pension Plan used to pay members MSP and Blue Cross premiums. So did the Teachers. Both of those are now borne by members. So much nicer than having a story about pension cuts, don’t you think?

We know for a certainty that widening Highway #1 will both induce more traffic – and encourage the sort of development described in that last block quote –  “large blocks instead of smaller ones, sprawling development instead of density, separated land uses instead of mixed ones.” The people who live in such places will in future be less healthy than those who can walk, cycle or ride transit on a daily basis. I include transit quite deliberately – since every transit ride has some walking at each end (transit takes you from where you are not to not quite where you need to be). Indeed, Weight Watchers has long advocated a simple way to burn more calories – get off the bus a couple of stops too soon. Walk to the next station not the closest one.

I really doubt that Christy Clark or Kevin Falcon actually care very much at all about anyone’s health but their own. But their policies do depend on them being able to rattle on about lower taxes. That’s why they love stories about spending cuts – and why they much prefer that Translink be audited multiple times, rather than deal with the real issue – lack of funding for transit expansion. But what the Toronto health study shows is that their preference for the sort of suburbs that we have been building and occupying since 1945, the sort of places that their paymasters have been selling us and which have been so profitable, are actually one of the causes that public health care costs continue to rise. We have got very good at treating conditions, but we are not very good at all in creating a healthier society. Prevention is always much more efficient than cure – or treatment for the incurable. The greatest health care problem is that caused by a sedentary populace. One that sits all day – in front of a computer screen or in a car to travel any distance at all. We do not have a health system: we have a sickness system. And there is a huge lobby of corporate interests that wishes that system to continue, unchanged. Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is a good definition of madness – but it is also an accurate description of conservatism. The obsession with resisting change, with refusing to admit that what we did was wrong and that we need to do things differently.

Transit is not a local problem. It is not something that municipalities can or should fund on their own. It is part of a much broader picture. The province cannot continue to pretend that it does not have an immediate and direct concern. Its highway policies – the construction of the wider Sea to Sky Highway, the South Fraser Perimeter Road, the Highway #1 expansion were all driven by property developers. All of them were directly contrary to the precepts of the Livable Region. The people of this region have repeatedly told the political leadership that they valued compact urban development, complete communities, with protection for the green zone and increased transportation choice. Oddly enough it was Gordon Campbell himself who came up with that formulation – when he was Mayor of Vancouver and Chair of the GVRD. And it was his government that chose – carefully and deliberately – to wreck that strategy, for short term political gain. There is no doubt that the widening of the Port Mann Bridge was – and is – very popular. But not only will it not solve the congestion problem (building roads has never cured congestion anywhere) it is also going to create a series of problems long into the future. Increasing public health care cost ought to be one that catches their attention – since all of the others they seem happy to ignore.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 19, 2012 at 10:45 am