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A green commute is a healthy commute

Jun 16, 2015
We know that greenhouse gases cause climate change, and that climate change has enormous implications for public health. Some effects are already beginning to manifest themselves.

portrait of Dr Charles GardnerWe know that greenhouse gases cause climate change, and that climate change has enormous implications for public health. Some effects are already beginning to manifest themselves. Extreme weather events are more frequent, increasing the risk of injuries and death. Air pollution, particularly ground-level ozone, aggravates asthma and other chronic conditions. Environment Canada estimates that about five per cent of deaths from heart and lung diseases are caused by ozone exposure. Water-borne and vector-borne diseases have been shifting into new regions.

The vehicles we drive generate roughly 23 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions. The 2006 census showed how much we rely on vehicles: 92 per cent of commuters in Simcoe Muskoka drove a car, truck or van to work. Only six per cent walked or biked, and two per cent used public transit.

Less polluting means of travel can improve air quality and reduce the estimated $8 billion-plus in resultant health care costs. “Active transportation” alternatives, such as walking and cycling, are good for air quality plus they have an immediate impact on an individual’s health and quality of life.

I know these impacts from personal experience.

I lost my walk to work in Brockville after moving to Barrie in 2005. Our new home was too far from work to walk. After driving to work for 18 months, I gained 10 pounds. I searched for some months to settle on a safe cycling route, and I have been cycling for eight months of the year ever since. I found a way to drive part way and walk two kilometres during the winter months. I lost the 10 pounds.

There is, however, more to this than personal commitment. We need to build the idea of active transportation into our culture, at work, at home, at play and in government policy. It has been rewarding in recent years to work with municipalities to change language in their official plans that encourages more health-conscious planning and development. At the provincial level, recently amended legislation will increase safety for motorists and cyclists.

Still more can be accomplished. Employers can make a start by installing storage for bicycles and shower stations in their workplaces. This was a simple measure we took at the health unit’s Barrie office; now, on most fair weather days, the rack has a number of bicycles of staff members.

Where distance rules out walking or cycling, people need to take a closer look at public transit. If routes are not practical, the systems will not be used and people will drive by default. Governments must be committed to continue developing public transit and active transportation options for all. We all need to talk to our local government representatives about healthy policies that include public transit, sidewalks, cycling lanes, and other healthy, green community features.

Dr. Charles Gardner is Simcoe Muskoka’s medical officer of health.

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