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Safety critical to active transportation

Aug 15, 2016
Being physically active is essential to good health, and one of the easiest ways to be get moving on a regular basis is to use active transportation to get places you’re already going.

 

 

 

 

 

By Dr. Charles Gardner

Being physically active is essential to good health, and one of the easiest ways to be get moving on a regular basis is to use active transportation to get places you’re already going. Active transportation, which is simply any form of human powered transportation, from walking to cycling to skateboarding to using a wheelchair, is a great way to build physical activity into our everyday life.

The benefits of active transportation are important to individuals and to our society as a whole. In 2014 the Medical Officers of Health in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area (GTHA), including Simcoe Muskoka, released Improving Health by Design, which directly attributes an alarming increase in diabetes—some 12,500 new cases a year—to physical inactivity. Inactivity and obesity cost the Ontario economy an estimated $4 billion every year. Locally we find that heart disease is at or above the provincial average.

Providing active transportation options also benefits health because with fewer vehicles on the road, we improve air quality. According to the 2006 census, 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. The vehicles we drive generate roughly 23 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions. Improving air quality by travelling in less polluting ways can prevent in the neighbourhood of 150 premature deaths in the GTHA each year and help to mitigate climate change.

However, it’s difficult to encourage people to use active transportation without discussing safety, something I know about from personal experience. I’ve been a cycling commuter for many years now, which I enjoy doing, rain or shine, eight months of the year. The route I use is the best I have found, but that’s not to say it’s safe and I’ve had some frightening experiences.

Unfortunately cycling and pedestrian injuries and deaths are far too common. Over the twelve-year period between 2000 and 2011, 14 Simcoe Muskoka residents died in cycling accidents, with nine of those as a result of a traffic collision with a car or truck. During the same time period, 67 Simcoe Muskoka pedestrians died in transportation-related accidents, with 80 per cent of the deaths a result of traffic collisions. 

People are more likely to walk or cycle if they have safe and easy access to trails, sidewalks and bike lanes. That requires conscious planning to ensure that, as we move toward building more active transportation options into community design, safety is at the forefront.

The good news is that we are building 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 official plan language to encourage more health-conscious planning and development of our cities and towns. It is also important to design our communities to make day to day needs more accessible by mixing non-residential uses into our residential areas in addition to creating safe and dedicated active transportation options. At the provincial level, legislation amended last fall will increase safety for motorists and cyclists.

While it will take years for the improved planning to actually be built, I look forward to the continuing good work by our municipalities and governments. In the meantime, there are some positive changes we can all make. Employers can start by installing storage for bicycles and shower facilities in their workplaces. This was a simple measure we took at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit with all our offices with sufficient space now having bicycle racks.

Where distance rules out walking or cycling, people can take a closer look at public transit. If routes are not practical, we can talk to our local government representatives about improving those routes. We can also encourage our leaders to develop healthy policies that include public transit, sidewalks, cycling lanes, and other healthy, green community features.

For more information on active transportation, visit www.smdhu.org or call Health Connection at 705-721-7520 or 1-877-721-7520 weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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Dr. Gardner is the Simcoe Muskoka Medical Officer of Health.


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