So many forces that seem to be about other aspects of human life – economics, geography, identity, politics – are in fact also intimately connected to health. That connection isn’t just incidental, it’s fundamental: once you begin to see it, it’s everywhere, and it comes through in concrete, important ways, ways that impact human wellbeing.
Transportation - how we choose to get around - is one such aspect of daily life. We usually talk about it as traffic patterns, transit fares, bus schedules, and commute times. For some, it’s a fascinating subject, for others, it’s simply background noise: there, but hardly worth remarking upon.
And yet getting from one place to another is something we nearly all have to do, most often on a daily basis. I started riding a bicycle to get around my city about 15 years ago, and I’ve loved it ever since. I can’t get everywhere I need to go by bike, but it’s long been my preferred means of transportation. More recently, I’ve become interested in the greater benefits of cycling, the factors that influence people’s decisions to choose one mode of transportation over another, and how better transit makes for better lives, and even a better world.
At the same time, I’ve seen more and more news of rising rates of car crashes, pedestrian deaths, and cars becoming less safe instead of safer, over the past few years. That’s news I’ve found it difficult to ignore.
As I’ve learned more about these issues, the cascading implications of something as basic as how you get to work, drop your children off at school, or run your errands have revealed themselves to me. Of course there’s traffic and noise and air pollution, but there’s also your individual health, your risk of injury – of death even – the look of the built environment and your feeling of connection to it. I really believe - and there’s evidence to support this - that how you get around even impacts your mood.
To explore the health and safety dynamics surrounding urban transit, I was fortunate to be able to speak to Kay Teschke, Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, and a leading academic in the field. After beginning a career focused on occupational exposure risks, Kay started a new research program in 2004 called “Cycling in Cities”. That research focused on the interaction between factors like the type of bike route available to riders, and the risk of injury or the decision to ride a bike. It has contributed scientific evidence for building routes that welcome cycling in North American cities, and Kay has been involved in provincial, national, and international policy making related to cycling. Even after her retirement, “Cycling in Cities” continues to be a thriving research initiative.
Talking to Kay helped me better understand the facts around cycling and urban transit, and to more clearly see how, as a society, the way we get around isn’t pure happenstance: it’s the result of deliberate decisions and clear choices – and we live with the consequences of those choices every day.