Since Earth Day was last week, this is a good time to be mindful of the influence we have on our environment and what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are that there are things we can do that are good for our health and the health of our planet. Active transportation, which includes walking, cycling, and other physically active modes of moving from place to place, is one example.
Active transportation has important environmental, health, and economic benefits for individuals and communities. Promoting active modes of transportation can reduce pollution, increase physical activity, and benefit both people and communities economically. In some areas, active transportation can replace motor vehicle use entirely. More commonly, though, physical activity can be combined with cars or public transportation to replace parts of trips.
Significant and accumulating evidence shows that motor vehicle use is a primary cause of air pollution. This includes greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter that are released by combustion engines and industry. This has been linked to climate change and health problems, including pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, contributing to 200,000 deaths per year.
The transportation sector is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States, so physically active modes of transportation that replace motor vehicle use could have a significant impact on air pollution and health. Estimates suggest that even a small decrease in vehicle miles traveled, a measure of motor vehicle use, by increasing active transportation could lead to reductions in particulate matter and greenhouse gas production.
In addition to environmental benefits, increasing active transportation has clear health benefits. As you might expect, spending more time commuting in a car is associated with an increased risk of obesity and more active commuting is associated with a lower risk of obesity. Beyond the influence on body weight, people who use physically active modes of transportation have a lower risk of diabetes and hypertension as well as death from cardiovascular diseases.
People who engage in active transportation get an average of 12–15 minutes of physical activity per day and 30% meet the 30 minutes per day recommendation. Considering that over a quarter of trips are less than 1 mile and most are less than five miles, most people could replace at least some driving with walking or cycling.
The cost of implementing active transportation is often cited as a reason not to, but individuals and communities can benefit economically from increased active transportation. Transportation represents the second largest expense for American families and may have a greater impact on low-income households. Given that active transportation is almost always more affordable than using a car, this could help many people and families make ends meet.
Communities that develop infrastructure and policies to promote active transportation experience direct and indirect benefits. These benefits include increased residential and commercial property values as well as the fact that people who are walking or cycling are more likely to visit businesses along their route. Depending on the location and nature of the project, implementing active transportation can have a positive cost-benefit ratio and promote job creation.
Given the environmental, health, and economic benefits, active transportation is a win, win, win for our community. Across the country, cities large and small are implementing infrastructure and policies to make them safer and more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. Since everyone benefits from a community that supports active transportation for work and leisure, we should take steps in that direction.