Special Report: Walkable Streets

Active Transportation is the Public Health Issue of Our Time

Hamilton has a huge head start with our many walkable prewar neighbourhoods, yet we continue to push ahead with 1970s-style car-dependent sprawl.

By Jason Leach
Published May 16, 2014

this article has been updated

This week, a very informative and pointed report came out of a collaboration between the Medical Officers of Health for Toronto, Peel, Simcoe Muskoka and Hamilton. Titled Improving Health by Design in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area [PDF], the report identifies neighbourhood design as one of the great public health issues of our time:

How we live and move impacts our health. Over a period of decades, we have removed physical activity from people’s lives including designing communities that require the use of cars. Currently, obesity and physical inactivity cost the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA) $4 billion a year. Diabetes-related medical costs attributable to inactivity are over $550 million each year with over 12,500 new cases of diabetes occurring annually due to inactivity.

Building our communities and lives with the motor vehicle at their centre have not only contributed to inactivity, but have resulted in the longest commute times in Canada with an annual economic cost of $6 billion in lost productivity. Furthermore, traffic-related air pollution is responsible for over 850 premature deaths a year and thousands of hospitalizations.

Please note the financial cost of obesity and number of premature deaths each year.

These are massive costs that we need to take seriously when planning new communities and retrofitting older communities, such as our unbalanced streets that discourage any activity other than driving.

Peel - the poster child for GTHA sprawl - seems to have learned from its mistakes and is feverishly working to fix their region with bold investments in light rail transit, bus rapid transit, pedestrian plazas and corridors, and high density housing all through the region.

Hamilton has a huge head start with our many walkable prewar neighbourhoods, yet we continue to push ahead with 1970s-style ideas like the Aerotropolis and building new low-density car dependent housing on beautiful orchard lands in Stoney Creek.

Toronto is growing rapidly and is accommodating 100% of their growth in the existing urban area. They are being creative with mid-rise development along major corridors and hubs of high-rise communities downtown and in appropriate spots elsewhere.

Hamilton has massive urban zones with lower population than they had 50 years ago. We can not only replace that lost population, but can add in hundreds of thousands of new residents along corridors like Main, King, Barton, Centennial, Ottawa, Upper James/ Wentworth/ Gage, Mohawk and so on.

Let's not fall further into expensive, debt-producing, low density and health-destroying car-dependent development when we all know what makes a city truly healthy and financially prosperous.

We have no excuse to keep repeating the mistakes of the mid-twentieth century decade after decade.

Take a look at the poll at the bottom of this CBC Hamilton article on the report. Note the top reasons for not using active modes of transportation: not "winter weather" or "I love my car", but "Transit is inconvenient" and "Not enough bike lanes or paths".

Obviously not everyone will switch modes, but many people will when give legitimate, convenient, safe alternatives.

At some point, we need to take the evidence from Public Health and start applying it to how our traffic engineers and planners design streets and neighbourhoods. To do that, we need Council to listen to the health experts and start providing leadership.

Update: this article originally stated that the report came from the Public Health Departments, but it actually came from the Medical Officers of Health collaborating personally. RTH regrets the error.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

31 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Jeremy S (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2014 at 15:30:06

Obviously school closures aren't helping the matter. Kids are picking up habbits that will affect them their whole life. If getting in Mom's car or catching the school bus to go across town is part of everyday life, kids won't make the same connections with their neighbourhood environment compared to kids that walk to school. Walking 1 or 2 kms isn't that big a deal if you're used to it. If you're not used to it, that kind of distance seems insurmountable.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By WakeUP (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2014 at 18:11:54

More than a preference, doing everything we can to stop CO2 emisssions is a matter of human survival on this planet. It may already be too late, but we have to try. The next decade is going to be even more dangerous in terms of weather, rising food prices, etc. We need to wake up, people.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 17, 2014 at 00:22:21

Interesting. So Hamilton's share of the 850 deaths is 93 people poisoned and killed by car drivers each year. Profoundly disturbing.

If we assume the same ratio of deaths to injuries as in Toronto this means that every year in Hamilton car drivers poison 395 people and injure them so seriously that they have to be hospitalized.

I see from the same Medical Officer of Health data that children are particularly vulnerable to being poisoned by car drivers. Every year in Hamilton, 279 children suffer acute bronchitis episodes due to being poisoned by car drivers. Also, children in Hamilton suffer 15,810 asthma symptom days every year because they were poisoned by car drivers.

Finally, the health care costs of all these deaths and injuries due to people being poisoned by car drivers in Hamilton is $511.5 million every year. Wow. No wonder that cycling infrastructure frequently pays for itself by reductions in health-care costs.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-05-17 00:46:34

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted May 17, 2014 at 10:28:48

Cycling to and from work has been a critical part of well being for me, what with working on computer at an office desk all day. Gets the heart rate up, lifts mood, can stop to watch the sunrise or geese by the lake, a few dollars saved on no car supports a good diet, many positives to be thankful for.

I have heard friends and coworkers ask questions, say they would love the option, but they have families and can't risk being killed in the streets. That is sad, but it also shows how latent and held back demand for active lifestyle is.

The exposure to exhaust is terrifying. Especially the diesel buses and trucks. It's the only thing I get crazy allergies from. Don't even know what to do about it. It's not a fair world :)

Permalink | Context

By AP (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 08:56:15 in reply to Comment 101374

Agreed! Even on tough days, rain pouring or snow falling, the shift in perspective of getting on my bike is a welcome and core component in my well-being. When I'm away from Hamilton and my bike for a few days, it always feels so good to get back on it again.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted May 17, 2014 at 16:35:51

Couldn't agree more with the article. And the harm caused by the school board amalgamating neighbourhood schools.

It makes sense that respiratory problems are caused by air pollution, but if you study this what actually happens is that cardiovascular effects are stronger yet (strokes, heart attacks etc)

Obesity related health costs are just one side of a many edged sword. Obesity and associated diseases strongly predict unemployment and 'disability'. So these folks, through 1) poor urban design (government's fault), 2) empty calories (capitalism's fault) and 3) laziness/inactivity (patient's fault) both contribute no taxes and seriously drain resources in everything from health care to income support to mobility buses.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By OMG (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2014 at 22:54:29

You can prove just about anything with stats if you monkey about with the assumptions.

It could be argued that cars actually have increased life expectancy. Post industrial society, largely driven by automobile production in the last 70 years, coincides with massive increases in life expectancy not seen in human history.

Permalink | Context

By Yup. (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2014 at 16:09:44 in reply to Comment 101383

Yup. You're right. RTH has a tendency to use the stats that are favourable to their argument, but not tell you the "why" or "how" behind the numbers (eg. over-include or over-exclude to make a point). One of the huge things that is annoying with this site - it sorely needs a "stats area" where we can see, at a glance, where the numbers come from so we can do our own math, or come to our own conclusions.

But hey, it's their prerogative, they pay to run the site however they want, and I don't believe they have a mission statement anywhere that says they aim to provide fair, balanced, and unbiased information anywhere.

Permalink | Context

By z jones (registered) | Posted May 18, 2014 at 16:45:35 in reply to Comment 101396

Oh bullshit. This site points to it's sources all the time. This is an article about a study by medical officers of health that links right to the study! Either you're really bad at paying attention or, far more likely, you just don't like the message and want to smear the messengers.

Permalink | Context

By Yup. (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 17:14:48 in reply to Comment 101398

Bullshit nothing. If you bothered to read, I didn't say that sources weren't quoted, I said that stats are skewed. Perception's a funny thing, isn't it?

I also didn't say it was related to this article, more in general (see: most of the LRT articles posted as of late).

I have no agenda, don't really care to smear anyone. I'm glad you're so good at jumping to conclusions and how brutish your response is. Thanks for trolling though. This site has enough.

Permalink | Context

By Connie (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 20:30:47 in reply to Comment 101418

What's your evidence that "the stats are skewed"?

Permalink | Context

By z jones (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 18:40:34 in reply to Comment 101418

You wrote that this site "sorely needs a "stats area" where we can see, at a glance, where the numbers come from so we can do our own math, or come to our own conclusions." If you want to see where the numbers come from and do your own math, just READ THE ORIGINAL REPORTS AND STUDIES that are linked from this site.

This site has more than enough trolling thanks to drive-by smears like your's. Either post something constructive or go somewhere else to spew your garbahe.

Permalink | Context

By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 18:09:42 in reply to Comment 101418

This thread is about a medical officer's report that active transportation is a low hanging fruit to build activity into people daily routine, and the health benefits that will ensue. If you want to whine about our LRT stats, at least go over to that thread. I'm genuinely interested in what people have to say about active transportation and its benefits and challenges. Leave the war outside please.

Permalink | Context

By si (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2014 at 20:06:19 in reply to Comment 101398

So,god says it is true! And so it is. Logic be damned

Permalink | Context

By highwater (registered) | Posted May 18, 2014 at 21:53:06 in reply to Comment 101400

So you're saying that the various medical officers of health were divinely inspired when they wrote the report? Oookaay.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2014 at 18:44:41

Exercise is always good for you. So is healthy living. But so was the industrial revolution. I think we should continue to study and investigate cleaner and more efficient means of private transportation (and public for that matter.) People should not smoke, or drink to excess; Or take non-medically prescribed drugs; Or beat their partners or children. and they should be kind to one another.

I agree with OMG. I would need to know what evidence and science is involved in making such a blanket statement as is made by the Medical Officers of Health. A healthy life is probably the goal of living. If life expectancy truly has co-undecided with, and has been caused by post-industrial society, then I am all for industrialization. That does not excuse waste or excess. But as they say, maybe the proof of the stats is in the tasting of the pudding.

Permalink | Context

By Connie (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 21:00:11 in reply to Comment 101421

" I would need to know what evidence and science is involved in making such a blanket statement as is made by the Medical Officers of Health. "

You could click the link in the article above to find the info you seek.

Permalink | Context

By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted May 21, 2014 at 07:33:31 in reply to Comment 101426

Of course I clicked both the CBC link and the link to the propaganda sheet. They contain conclusions only.

There is a documentary called "Homo Sapiens 1900" that traces the rise and the fall of the eugenics movement. The "science" at the time suggested that, amongst other things, humanity was disintegrating because of lack of physical activity, movement away from the farm, too many articles of convenience, too easy modes of transportation, the automobile, etc. etc. The Eugenicists argued that by manipulating birth through selection and changing the environment we could quickly and significantly alter human evolution. We know where that led.

There are studies in Baltimore from ten years ago about how failure to spend money on road infrastructure caused health problems.

My agreement with OMG is that statistics can be manipulated very easily to support almost any hypothesis. You need to look deeply into the statistics and not some colorful brochure, to critically analyze the data that supports the conclusion.

Traffic congestion increases pollution. Pollution is bad. Why not reduce congestion by allowing traffic to move more freely - not less freely? Because "that will "encourage" more traffic which will cause more pollution" say some. Chicken and egg.

I would start with parents controlling video games and school re-implementing mandatory physical education. You can't ban cigarettes or alcohol or pot, but you can set a good example for your children and not use the stuff. I suspect fast food, carbonated drinks, lack of balanced diets, poor education and parenting, are as much if not more to be blamed for obesity and diabetes than automobile transportation. The brochure is devoid of this information. Where are the blind studies?

Comment edited by notlloyd on 2014-05-21 07:38:38

Permalink | Context

By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted May 20, 2014 at 19:15:51 in reply to Comment 101421

As with everything on this planet, resources and technologies are good if used responsibly, bad if used irresponsibly (including to excess). We're really lucky at this point in time, some long awaited technologies are arriving.

Private travel is undergoing revolution, in fact has been for a while, just starting to go mainstream now. Electrification of cars is beginning. And even in the meantime, more and more new cars stop their motors when at a stop. The light turns green and I hear motors kicking back on. That is so cool and it really helps emissions a lot. The car saved its owner some gas, and I noticed it and was grateful while biking in mixed traffic briefly.

Speaking of biking, electrification of bikes is really getting good now, lithium battery tech is getting pretty good thanks to the e-car revolution underway. Basically I've got an electric motorcycle that is free of licensing overhead simply because it's speed governed. But the tech is so cool , and it's only breaking the ice.

Good things to private transport are totally happening, and they'll phase in over years and decades per replacement rate of vehicles, so not all that quickly, but at an accelerating rate; the tipping point looks like it's getting there!

The political apparatus seems to be lagging the innovation that exists, especially frightening are instances of places like even Canada or Australia going backwards on environmental regulation. When the masses start booing and jeering the genuine, intelligent, diligent and thorough scientists of our time, it is a signal that we're in real trouble.

Anyway, what new tech does not resolve, is the basic and obvious math of increasing population versus congestion. The more private space you take up during a rush hour commute, the more congested things will be as urban centers both intensify and expand their boundaries. So we have many cities and combinations of features to look to, for data and as examples. Why not get some people on two wheels, people who are dying to get more exercise each day, I guarantee it, because I've heard it - "I'd love to cycle more, but it's too dangerous". Thus, a network of bike lanes and safety features will help a lot as part of a balanced application of the fruits of human innovation.

A balanced approach of all the tools our human species has innovated are useful. New tech is doing it's part and advancing rapidly; cities have had time to gather modern and detailed data on what helps as far as public transit; cities have implemented active transportation policies with amazing results. The trick is the right balances, the right education campaigns, and the right people to make them happen. The GTHA is showing some symptoms of a leadership and ethics vacuum. Hope it works out.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-05-20 19:20:54

Permalink | Context

By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted May 21, 2014 at 17:08:27 in reply to Comment 101423

This is a good post.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds