For the past year, I’ve been trying to adhere to my 2016 New Year’s resolution of riding my bike to work every day. This resolution predates my time at ILLUME, and stems from my public health and planning background, and, honestly, necessity. I can get some physical activity, and explore new nooks and crannies of Tucson only accessible by bike. I also live in a one-car household, where two people go to work and school full-time, so riding my bike is actually unavoidable at times.
Tucson is a nearly ideal city to commute by bike. It’s flat, has (gorgeous) weather the majority of the year, and rocks a fairly comprehensive (yet always improving) bike network. However, getting out the door at 6:00 am to be at work, a mere 4 miles away, by 6:30 is no easy task. Like any behavior change, the road can be a little bumpy. Some days I wake up when it’s still dark outside and the little voice in my head yells at me to hide under the covers and under no circumstances head out into the chilly weather (read: 40 degrees, everything is relative). The fact that my two dogs are still sleeping also does not help. They have actually given me looks in the early morning, as I put on my bike helmet and gather my belongings, that seems to scream, “go back to bed, crazy lady!”. But as I churn my sleepy legs on the peddles, and look into the raging sunrise cresting over a quiet city–I snatch a few minutes of peace before the hustle and bustle of the work day.
Recently, on my morning commute, I began to think about how transportation, public health, city planning and energy efficiency are related. I am a firm believer that our communities impact our happiness and health, and our health and happiness impacts our communities. Likewise, our transportation choices are dependent on where we live– what are the social norms, what resources are available and what trade-offs must we contend with? More often than not, where we live makes it harder, rather than easier, to break our habits and get around town in a different fashion. Are your roads conducive to walking or bicycling? Do you have a public transit stop near your house? Do you feel safe and secure walking in the dark in your neighborhood? Is your town or city designed in such a way that where you live is far from where you shop, work and play?
These hurdles aside, we must revisit our transportation choices–for our community, for our health, and for our planet.
There are a few ways to consider efficiency when it comes to transportation: 1) is the transportation/transit system efficient in terms of the energy source? and 2) is the transportation/transit system efficient in terms of using space?
Transportation often overlooked when we talk about efficiency. According to the EPA, almost 28% of all of our energy is used to transport goods and ourselves to and from places. Personal vehicles account for 59% of all transportation energy consumption. Some quick math tells us that this is almost 17% of total energy consumption that is going towards personal vehicles. Not only is that a large portion of total energy consumption, but (so far) almost all of the energy used for personal vehicles is non-renewable.
Different transportation use space differently. Just look at the image below, where each image shows the same number of people using different transportation modes, and the effect that has on road congestion. Using bikes and buses takes up far less space on the roadway than personal vehicles. This relates back to energy consumption; more single-occupancy cars on the road equates to more energy consumption and also more congestion. Congestion is not just irritating, the start and stop nature of it has huge impacts on our community health and wellness.
Transportation impacts our physical and mental health quite prominently. Transportation, specifically personal vehicles, contribute to over 50% of our air pollution and thus, can lead to asthma and respiratory issues, childhood cancers and poor birth outcomes. 1
On the contrary, engaging in active forms of transportation (walking, biking or rolling) bodes well for our health. Interspersing physical activity into transportation can help you get healthier, even if it’s a simple walk to the bus stop. One study found that investing in light rail might have a 9-year public health cost savings of $12.6 million. 2
In a country where our waistlines are expanding, treating chronic diseases are expected to cost $1.07 trillion by 2020, and life expectancy has seen a decrease in the first time in two decades, incorporating health into transportation decisions is an important planning and public health agenda item. 3,4
Another way to think about the (in)efficiency of transportation is in units of PowerBars. If a single occupancy vehicle was to run off of the energy in one PowerBar, it would only travel 795 feet. If a person were to ride a bike after consuming one PowerBar, they could travel 34,637 feet, or 6.6 miles. The energy from one PowerBar fuels a person to travel 30x further by bicycling and walking than by a single occupancy car. (Graph below courtesy of Dr. Arlie Adkins, professor and researcher at University of Arizona).
While these numbers should definitely be considered rough estimates, they help paint the picture that for transportation, what is energy efficient is also a healthier choice. While the road ahead (pun intended) for transportation will most likely be a hot political topic for towns, cities and regions and changing technology will shift transportation from “business as usual” planners, public health professionals and energy professionals can be united under the common cause of reducing vehicle miles traveled, reducing energy consumption and improving health.
In this New Year I’m going to continue to try to prioritize biking over driving whenever feasible. I understand that lots of circumstances make this difficult for everyone to implement (serious props to those parents who commute on bikes!), but we should all remember, that every little bit helps! Small day to day choices can add up to large social impacts! So get out there and walk, bike, run, skip, and skateboard into 2017!
- Stokes, R. J., MacDonald, J., & Ridgeway, G. (2008). Estimating the effects of light rail transit on health care costs. Health & Place, 14(1), 45-58.
- Adams, K., & Corrigan, J. M. (Eds.). (2003). Priority areas for national action: transforming health care quality. National Academies Press.
- Xu JQ, Murphy SL, Kochanek KD, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2015. NCHS data brief, no 267. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.