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Does transportation have an impact on growing health care costs?

Albuquerque8 Originally uploaded by Transportation for America
Streets safe for walking and biking — especially streets that encourage incidental exercise by encouraging walking or biking — can help residents be more healthy, lowering the health care costs associated with obesity and inactivity.

With Congress directing their attention to the contentious debate over health care reform and how to pay for it, it seems that transportation has been relegated to the back burner. In the meantime, evidence is continuing to mount that transportation investments — what we build and where — have an enormous impact on our health and the financial bottom line of providing health care.

Last week the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) released The Economic Costs of Overweight, Obesity and Physical Inactivity Among California Adults. In a state making national headlines for its current budget crisis, the study found that (in 2006) “overweight, obesity and physical inactivity cost the state $41.2 billion – $21.0 billion for overweight and obesity, and $20.2 billion for physical inactivity.”

An even more shocking recent study found that the already-dangerous effects of air pollution are magnified for pregnant women living near busy roads.

According to this study from a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, exposure to traffic-generated air pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of preeclampsia and premature birth. The study examined over 80,000 birth records and found that the risk of the life-threatening condition preeclampsia increased 33% and the risk of premature birth rose 128% in women living closest to congested corridors.

Many other negative health effects from vehicle emissions, congestion and air pollution have already been documented — with low-income and minority populations typically experiencing the most harmful side effects due to where interstates and highways get built.

The CCPHA report on obesity included some concrete policy recommendations for improving public health, a few of which are connected to our transportation spending decisions.

  • Locate residential, commercial and office buildings close together so more residents can walk and bike to meet their daily needs
  • Build neighborhoods with safe and attractive parks and other places for recreational exercise
  • Create transportation corridors that support pedestrians and bicyclists

Including some realistic goals for improving public health in the transportation bill — one of T4 America’s six national transportation objectives for the bill — would be a great place to start. If we’re ever going to truly move away from a prescriptive health care model to a preventative model — saving us billions in health care costs — we’re going to have to address more than just the skyrocketing costs of treating illnesses and diseases — we’re going to have to look upstream and address some of the contributing factors.

Doing so could keep us healthier and save us billions.

With research from Becca Homa

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  2. Erin Lyre

    8 years ago

    The effects of air pollution on pregnant women have a number of dimensions. Recent studies have also proved that women who are exposed to pollution, especially in the first and last few months of pregnancy, are up to 25% more likely to have pre term babies. The studies also found that pregnant women exposed to air pollution suffered from low fetal growth and other serious problems. In fact, the effects were as bad as in those where the women were habitual smokers.
    Learn more at aafter.com

  3. Sarah

    8 years ago

    I think that traffic does have some impact. And to be honest, I am not so sure about this study. The media is taking two different standpoints, and I don’t know whom I should believe. Some are saying that this is just a wake-up call for those who aren’t concerned with pollution, and others are saying that this study is just a scare tactic. I definitely feel that we should start finding solutions to this problem. I don’t know if we need to start a more public form of transportation, or maybe get smaller cars that don’t leak exhaust fumes, or what? I went searching for some answers and I found this great site that has a video that shows both sides of the story, it doesn’t offer solutions, but it is still pretty interesting. You should check it out.
    http://www.newsy.com/videos/pollution_and_pregnancy

  4. patty

    8 years ago

    More sidewalks are needed to combat obesity, depression, social isolation.

    I believe that obesity today comes from lack of natural exercise (opposite of needing to go to gym just to be minimally fit) We have to drive to get to stores, schools especially in suburban sprawl areas.

    My suggestion is to put sidewalks on as many US/state roads as possible (e.g. northeast route 1) that lead to a town/commercial area/school.

    Mandate/encourage that all new/proposed housing developments/shopping centers/strip malls/schools have sidewalks included in building plans so that surrounding community can safely walk to and from the new/renovated structurest.

    Sidewalks would allow people to be less isolated, parents could push baby strollers, elderly could walk safely, dogs could be walked and I also believe it would help the local economy of the community.

  5. Garlynn Woodsong

    8 years ago

    This post brings up a really important issue, which has another dimension: The infrastructure that causes pollution (freeways, highways, major roads, railroad mainlines) tends to be more concentrated in central cities and urban areas. These are also the places where we are focusing a lot of our efforts on encouraging infill and transit oriented development.

    Is infill development, then, just putting more people into unhealthy places, where the very air they breathe is more likely to cause them health problems, including premature births? The answer is probably yes. But, if they were to relocate out into the far-flung suburbs, where air pollution is less concentrated, then they will become obese from inactivity and incur other health problems.

    The answer must be to clean up our infrastructure. All of our trains that operate in urban areas must be electrified (or otherwise switch away from running on dirty petro-diesel, such as immediately converting to operation on 100% biodiesel where the climate allows). Ditto for trucks, ships and other large machinery.

    But we must also take greater steps to green our urban areas. Trees and vegetation go a long ways towards filtering the air that we breathe — not only converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, but physically removing particulate pollution from the air by allowing it to settle out on their leaves, where it is retained to be washed away by the next rains.

    Smart Growth must include all of these strategies to be truly smart. Just shoving more densities of people near polluting transportation and port infrastructure is not smart.

  6. Pingback: Does transportation have an impact on growing health care costs? « Bike Topeka