Public health and transit

From TransitWiki
Revision as of 16:16, 20 August 2012 by Amiller (talk | contribs)
Jump to navigation Jump to search


In many ways, public health and public transit are complementary. Many municipal agencies rely on public transit as a part of their air quality improvement plans and to reduce emissions from travel. In fact, many planning agencies are adding health elements to their general plans that specifically describe transit as an essential part of building healthy communities because of its role in facilitating incidental physical activity and giving people who cannot or do not drive another option for obtaining medical care and healthy food. The City of South Gate, California’s recently approved health element includes several provisions that highlight the necessity of transit to accomplishing its health goals. The element names bicycle connections, pedestrian connections, and transit-oriented development as some of these provisions.[1]

A passenger takes a bicycle through the turnstile to use BART. Bicycle connections are important for promoting physical activity for transit riders. Photo by Flickr user sfbike.

Air Quality

Air quality and public transit are linked in many ways, but one of the most direct connections made by any agency is through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) standards. CMAQ provides a source of funding to states with air quality that does not meet the Clean Air Act’s air quality standards - this funding can be used for public transit projects and is distributed through the state’s department of transportation. These funds may be used by transit agencies to provide new service, to expand public transit service, and/or to provide incentives to use existing services.[2]


Long-term exposure to noise has been linked to stress and anxiety, as well as behavioral problems in children. This includes exposure to ambient noise from automobiles of any kind and is a problem that should be taken into account when considering locating housing near freeways. One recent study examined the noise at light rail platforms in Los Angeles that are located in the middle of freeways. The author focuses primarily on the unpleasantness of the noise associated with waiting for trains in the middle of a freeway. Most of the research on noise has focused on long-term exposure, over periods of years and several hours per day, which does not translate easily to wait times for transit. However, the unpleasantness of waiting in a noisy environment can be stressful and could deter people from using those stops.[3] It is also important to note that the report focused on transit passengers, not employees, and drivers may be exposed to high levels of noise over long periods of time and may be susceptible to the common effects of noise exposure.

Injuries and Deaths

Another way that public transit may affect public health is in prevention of injuries and deaths caused by traffic accidents. This component of public transit also especially affects the health and safety of transit workers, in addition to the public. Bus drivers and maintenance workers can be put at risk by different attributes of the systems where they work. However, Caltrans and many other transportation agencies have occupational health and safety experts to prevent on-the-job accidents and to monitor ongoing safety risks.[4]

Mental Health

Public transit and cost-effective ADA service can provide an important lifeline for people who do not drive. Travel training can be an important component to helping people with disabilities or older adults to navigate and feel comfortable on the public transit system. For example, the North County Transit District of San Diego provides travel training for older adults and people who use mental health services in the county. Peer trainers assist trainees one-on-one with planning trips and navigating the transit system. This program also includes a ‘Travel Buddy’ program specifically to help active seniors with these same tasks to help them independently navigate the system, as well.

Physical activity

Bus stop spacing and location can greatly influence whether people choose to walk or bike to public transit, rather than driving to a stop or to a destination. If stops are in locations that are convenient and safe to walk to, reaching transit can contribute to daily physical activity. Many people do not get the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity per day, but public transit can help people reach that goal. People who use transit walk a median of 19 minutes per day to and from transit.[5] Public


  1. Raimi + Associates. "City of South Gate General Plan.” 2009.
  2. Federal Highway Administration. “Air Quality.” 2005.
  3. Schaffer, Alexander. "Passenger Exposure To Noise At Transit Platforms In Los Angeles." 2012.
  4. Raptis, Maria. California Department of Transportation. “The District’s Health and Safety Team Is Watching Your Back.” 2012.
  5. Besser, Lilah M. and Andrew L. Dannenberg. "Walking to Public Transit: Steps to Help Meet Physical Activity Recommendations." 2005.

Additional Reading

Besser, Lilah M. and Andrew L. Dannenberg. "Walking to Public Transit: Steps to Help Meet Physical Activity Recommendations." 2005.

This article, which was posted on the Centers for Disease Control’s Healthy Places program, examines how public transit and physical activity are connected. The authors used the National Household Transportation Survey and interviews of public transit users to conduct their analysis. They found that public transit is an important tool for reaching the recommended amount of physical activity that people get.

Dannenberg, Andrew L., Howard Frumkin, and Richard J. Jackson, editors. “Making Healthy Places - Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability.” 2012.

Although this book is available to order, and not online, it is a comprehensive guide to how the built environment and health interact. The editors used contributions from public health professionals, urban planners, and other advocates to create a resource that examines the broad topics of urban health and sustainability. The book also devotes several chapters to exploring the variety of solutions being pursued to ‘cure’ our built environment. Dr. Richard Jackson also hosted a complementary PBS series on the topic, “Designing Healthy Communities.”