Gauchetière Street, pedestrian section (take 2), Montreal 2005-10-21.JPG
“Gauchetière Street, pedestrian section (take 2), Montreal 2005-10-21” by No machine readable author provided. Gene.arboit assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Discussions about density, transit, biking, and pedestrians generally center on two issues: the implications for low-income people and environmental impact. Lest we forget the enormous public health implications of these policies, The Economist has some encouraging figures ($):

London’s authorities calculate that if every Londoner switched to walking for trips under 2km, and to cycling for trips of 2-8km, the share who got enough exercise to remain healthy simply by getting around would rise from 25% to 60%. That would amount to 61,500 years of healthy life gained each year.

Obviously, most Londoners are going to have more short trips than most Seattle residents since stuff is simply closer together. And since walking and bicycling are often unsafe in Seattle, collisions with cars while using these modes would probably claw back some of the health gains. But a directed policy of densification and ped/bike safety would have large, positive economic and quality-of-life implications.

In a companion article, the magazine shares a less London-specific finding ($):

Even a little exercise has a huge health effect, whether or not people shed their extra pounds. Research presented on August 30th at a cardiology conference in London suggests that walking fast for 25 minutes a day can buy three to seven years of extra life. A bigger study by a team at Cambridge University tracked 300,000 Europeans over 12 years, and found that a brisk daily 20-minute walk, or the equivalent, cut the annual death rate for people of normal weight by a quarter, and for the obese by 16%. Getting everyone sedentary to do this would save twice as many lives as ending obesity, says Ulf Ekelund, the lead researcher.

Many readers here probably recognize about 20 minutes of brisk walking inherent in their use of transit. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that transit agencies should deliberately increase the amount of walking their customers do — encouraging ridership through practical usability trumps enforced exercise — but sometimes the time penalty of using transit can be a feature, not a bug.

28 Replies to “Less Driving, Better Human Health”

  1. “but sometimes the time penalty of using transit can be a feature, not a bug”

    This, a thousand times. Not only is walking to the bus very beneficial to one’s physical health, it’s a boon to psychological health too. The human brain was formed at walking (and running) speed. Now it’s certainly flexible enough to “accept” faster motion, but there’s nothing like walking to satisfy it’s need for variety and give it an opportunity for reflection.

    Walkers are sane — except for those who insist that there really is a crosswalk at every intersection, a position with which most drivers vehemently disagree.

    1. Sometimes.

      It depends heavily on where you’re walking. A km or two of busy, dynamic streets with an infinite number of things to look at, like the one shown above, are undoubtedly good for mental and physical health, especially when the sun’s out. The same exact distance down dreary sidewalk-less streets lined with parking lots and blank walls is not, especially if it’s raining and the way is muddy and you have a grocery bag or two. These walks are soul-destroying. Very few Seattle streets outside of the immediate core meet the former criteria.

      Note that even in Montreal the street pictured is in the densest part of downtown (and thus its most interesting), and is lined with bus stops and also has the central railway station on it.

      1. This is why choosing a good walking route is a big deal. Often the most obvious choice is to simply walk the route you would drive, but making an effort to choose neighborhood streets and trails or pedestrian paths over arterials makes for a much better experience. In a poorly designed city, you pretty much have to walk the route you would drive, as nothing else goes through. Fortunately, Seattle – even parts of the city well outside the center – is much better designed than this.

      2. Maybe for you, but I like just about any walk, but I do live where there are lots of residential streets available to me.

    2. As Martin points out, a lot of it depends on where the walking is. If you are talking about a transfer (as the example was) then you are talking about a significant amount of time that might just be the difference between walking or driving. There are a lot of other factors (or course) but in general, systems that have very short transfer distances as well as very short transfer times have very high ridership. For example:

      1) Walk down three flights of stairs.
      2) Walk four blocks and down to the subway.
      3) Wait a minute and catch the train headed north.
      4) Three minutes later, get off the train and walk to the other platform.
      5) Wait another couple minutes for the train.
      6) Take that train three more stops and get off.
      7) Walk up to the street level and then a block to the building.
      8) Enter the building and press the elevator button.
      9) Wait for the elevator and ride up to your office.

      It should be obvious that a huge portion of the time is spent on either end of the journey (just getting to and from public transit) but this isn’t that big of a deal because everything else (waiting, riding, transferring is very quick). Now consider the opposite:

      1) Walk from your house a block over to the bus stop.
      2) Spend a bunch of time on the bus, as it stops every couple blocks on its way downtown.
      3) Get off the bus downtown and walk several blocks up a steep hill to make a transfer.
      4) Wait a while for your bus.
      5) Spend a bunch of time on this bus as it too stops every couple blocks. But it does drop you right off at your destination.

      In the first example, no one would consider driving; in the second, everyone with a car would (and everyone without a car would consider getting one). In both cases, the walking is about the same — its just that the walking in the second example occurs in the middle (at the transfer point).

      If we really want to get people out of their cars — for the health of the planet as well as the populace — then we should try and make transfers as painless as possible.

  2. Seattle might have a slight bump in the health benefit since the average 2km trip here involves significantly more elevation change than the average 2km trip in London.

  3. Metro Transit has pretty much moved away from their former notion that bus stops had to be placed every block or two. Greater distances between stops means a bit more walking for riders and a faster transit trip.

    1. Yeah, the stop diets get some resistance but they’re a really good and important change. I ride buses when I visit San Francisco and Detroit; both cities have stops way too close together on a lot of really busy routes, and it’s just painful. Cheers to Metro for pushing forward with stop diets. When they did it to the 28 in the early 00’s I sent feedback saying “thanks (really!) for taking away my stop.”

  4. “And since walking and bicycling are often unsafe in Seattle”

    Often? It isn’t that bad, I’d argue. Walking and cycling are generally quite safe in Seattle – I’d hate for people to think otherwise. Statistically, you should be 12x more fearful of a violent assault/homicide.

    Total traffic deaths and injuries (including car vs. car crashes) have been under 200/year for the past 4 years. For comparison, Seattle had more than 2400 total violent assaults + homicides last year.

    Not to say we can’t improve things – there are lots of promising ways to make streets safer. One of them, importantly, is getting more people to walk and cycle.

    1. Having spent time walking in both, I find Tacoma worse. Far fewer people in Tacoma seem to know that it is possible to walk places, let alone notice people doing so in crosswalks.

      Seattle’s biggest problem are some of the bizarre places where there isn’t a good route. Things like Alaskan Way to 1st on Bell Street crossing a freeway off-ramp from the viaduct, and the view blocked due to the down slope of the ramp? I don’t think even the worst suburb I have ever been in puts such an expensive pedestrian corridor, with an elevator and large expensive pedestrian bridge, into such a preposterous place that negates the purpose of the structure and pedestrian corridor.

  5. Question: Move Seattle said that 26% of Seattle households live within a 10 minute walk of a bus route running 10 minutes or less for at least part of the day. And that the goal is to get to something like 72% by 2025 I think.

    Does anyone know (or can anyone estimate) how much the U-Link restructurings will increase this 26% in 2016. Will we be above 30% when they go through for example?

    1. I don’t know. But more significantly, does Move Seattle qualify “part of the day”? In the extreme, it could mean intentional bus bunching during rush hour, which would be neutral or even unhelpful. I think it’s much more important to be getting to better service for a large part of the day, whether it’s at ten-minutes or fifteen-minutes. Unless I’m missing something, the U-Link restructure would give us the fourth and fifth corridors up to that standard. (Previously, there was Link, the 71-2-3, and Pike/Pine; now we’re adding the 49 and 48-S.)

  6. Plus the more you walk, your concept of walking distance changes. 2Km is about 1.2 miles. To a person who walks a lot, 1.2 miles is easy walking distance, while to a person who mostly drives, 1.2 miles is not walking distance.

    And as your personal walking distance increases, you can leverage the amount of transit. For example, I consider the 73 a transit line within walking distance to me even though i live in Lake City. It definitely helps build resilience during emergencies (eg snow) as I am not bound to one bus route, I can take what comes and work from there..

    1. It’s still not “easy”, even if it’s not difficult. Easy is, “I’ll just pop out for a bit to return a library book or get some tomatoes”, as streetcar suburbs were designed for. 1.2 miles is still 30 minutes each way, 60 minutes total, so that adds up if you do it several times a week or every day. The 10-minute principle still stands: 10 minute walk circles are an easy walk, 20 minute is borderline, and 30 minute is fringe, and 40 minute only a few people would do more than occasionally (unless walking is the goal).

    2. If there aren’t stoplights to deal with, 1.2 miles is a lot less than 30 minutes. There’s a particular 1.2 mile trip I make at least a couple times a week, for which I typically allow about 15-20 minutes at a brisk walk, or 10-15 minutes if I’m willing to walk half way/run half way. One nice thing about walking is, unlike other modes, it is very easy to temporarily increase the pace if you’re running behind schedule and really need to get somewhere.

  7. I live in the suburbs.

    While I don’t walk everywhere, I walk at the places I go to. I walk in the parking lot. I walk inside the stores and malls. I go to parks like Flaming Geyser at lunch and walk the trails. I go to the gym and walk while watching sports. I take my bike out a couple of times a week and do a 10-15 mile jaunt.

    I also have a larger apartment than I would in the city and I walk around inside it. And like Mr. Miyagi, I do my own housework because it seems like all the bending, stretching and labor are as good a workout as anything.

    However, claiming that it is the exercise that will make us more healthy detracts from the real problem. We live our lives, in city, suburbs, and county, submersed in a sea of noxious gasoline and by product fumes. The only way to alleviate that is by a rapid and radical conversion to hydrogen.

    1. It sounds like you get a lot of recreational walking, and then decide to burn a bunch of extra CO2 so you can have a bigger apartment.

      1. JB has talked time and again about the low cost of his location, and how the neighborhood allows the poor and immigrants to have a life with a home and small business and access to a community college. He lives near 104th & KK Road in east Kent near a small shopping center, which is the densest low-cost area in the county, comparable to Crossroads before its “mall”. It’s not “urban” but it has housing and shops within a long walk (half mile) or moderate bike ride of each other, and 15-minute buses to Kent Station (on alternating sides of the street; less evenings and Sundays). I forget whether cost, size, or parking is the primary reason for his location. But in any case, even if he could move to Seattle, not all of east Kent can do so: there’s not enough housing and many of them couldn’t afford it. So some people will have to live in the suburbs, and the suburbs should urbanize so it’s easier to walk to places.

  8. The quotes in zero contrast type (including the type as it’s showing up here in this
    Comment box) are inaccessible, user-unfriendly and impossible to read.
    Suggest make all the type-font and text black, high contrast so it can be read by adults of all ages (and youth too). Thanks.

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