What are some of the hidden costs of a car-centric society? A 2010 report from the American Public Health Association argues that these hidden costs — obesity-related health care costs, lost wages due to illness, health care and premature deaths caused by air pollution from traffic, $180 billion from traffic crashes (lost wages, health care costs, property damage, travel delay, legal costs, etc.) — have been ignored for too long as decision-makers hash out transportation policies. The report notes:
Our dependence on automobiles and roadways has profound negative impacts on human health: decreased opportunities for physical activity, and increased exposure to air pollution, and the number of traffic crashes. The health costs associated with these impacts, including costs associated with loss of work days and wages, pain and suffering, and premature death, may be as high as several hundred billion dollars.
While the effects of transportation systems on mental health, stress, and social cohesion can be hard to quantify, the report argues that the costs associated with obesity, respiratory illness, and injuries are supported by research.
Health impacts and costs have typically not been considered in the transportation policy, planning, and funding decision-making process. There are few standards or models for estimating health costs. However, existing research can be used to estimate the population at risk, the magnitude of the health impact, and the health costs associated with those impacts. Growing recognition of the connection between transportation, land development and health has resulted in some studies and examples where health impacts and costs have been considered and assessed. These examples not only demonstrate that health costs should be a significant factor in decision-making, but also show that calculating such costs is indeed possible.
The report calls for transportation policies that encourage planning and funding to include health impacts; support the development of healthy communities with active transportation options; and strongly consider safety and equity when planning transportation projects.
Robert Wood Johnson foundation is also taking a look at this issue in a recent issue brief which concludes that our current transportation system is, simply, bad for our health.
Walkable, bikable, transit-oriented communities are associated with healthier populations. People in such
communities are more physically active, have less weight gain, have lower rates of traffic injuries, and are less exposed to air pollution. Studies show that people walk to places that are close by and when they feel safe. Forty percent of people walk to shops—similar percentages walk to work, school and other destinations—when trips are within one mile.
The takeaway? The more friendly a town or city is to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation lines, the healthier the citizens. Sitting in a car does not do a body good.