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Public Transit Users More Likely to Reach Physical Activity Targets

Friday, April 17, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Photo by frankdethier.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I feel physical activity should be built into our daily lives, rather than being sequestered in small chunks labeled “workouts”. It can feel impossible to fit in a workout some days, and it’s just too easy to skip the gym when you’re having an off day. By building activity into your daily routine, you can ensure that you’re getting at least some physical activity on even the busiest days.

For these reasons I am a big fan of active transportation – walking, cycling, or taking public transit instead of driving. Although taking public transit may not seem like the most obvious way to increase your physical activity levels, a recent study by Ugo Lachapelle and Larry Frank at the University of British Columbia suggests that this might be the case. In their study, available here, Lachapelle and Frank examined the association between transit use and physical activity levels in citizens of Atlanta. Not surprisingly, they report that individuals who took public transit were more likely to meet the recommended level of daily physical activity than individuals who did not take transit. Who was least likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity? Individuals who took most of their trips by car. These findings are cross-sectional, but nonetheless very interesting, and suggest that taking public transit is one way that you can build physical activity into your daily life.

I was very interested by this paper, so I emailed Mr Lachapelle some questions and he was kind enough to allow me to publish them on our site. This is the first of what we hope will be many Obesity Panacea interviews, and we hope you enjoy it.

TS: You report that transit users walk more than non-transit users, and that increasing the number of transit trips was associated with greater likelihood of meeting the recommended level of daily physical activity. Briefly, why do you think that to be the case?

UL: Thank you for appropriately formulating the issue. The media focused on the question of fitness, of which walking for the purpose of transportation is only a parcel. In fact meeting the Physical activity recommendation does not imply being fit, but rather participating in enough activity to maintain health and prevent diseases.

There are a number of plausible reasons for our findings. First getting to a transit access point (stop or station) typically requires walking on both origin and destination end of trips. While this may also be the case for automobile drivers, we would expect the distance to be shorter, at least on one end of the trip. Second, since transit users do not have a car at their destination they are more likely to make multiple small walk trips to shops and services near their transit stop. We would also expect a greater proportion of transit rides to bring the user to locations were walking is made easier by higher densities and concentration of multiple services. These and other questions are all part of the PhD thesis that I hope to be defending next fall.

TS: In your study, you report that both high and low income earners walked more than individuals with a middle-income. Why do you think that middle-income earners walk less?

UL: Our explanation for this is that middle-income household are more frequently located in the suburbs, while low income households may rent in more central areas and often do not own cars, and higher income individuals can afford to live in the central areas with high amenities that enables a lifestyle that involves lots of walking to shops and services. We expect that the low income individuals may have recorded more walking out of necessity, while the wealthier people may have done so because of lifestyle preferences and personal choices. Perhaps larger middle income families also have more time constraints.

TS: What are some of the ways that we can increase the attractiveness of transit to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds?

A simple answer is making it better. We know that there are people with automobiles using public transportation. If we consider these people to have similar needs and interest in saving time and having a convenient mode of travel (the automobile’s often cited competitive advantages), then they must live in situations where public transit use is competitive. Personal views, preferences and constraints come into play, but clearly, transit use makes more sense to some people in a city depending where they live and the destinations they need to access. Increasing the small proportion of people with high quality transit access is likely to increase ridership of wealthier people. Increasing the larger proportion of people with reasonable transit access is likely to increase ridership of people with more travel constraints.

TS: You make the case that employer-subsidized transit passes make sense for both employers and employees. Do you think we will see them becoming increasingly popular in the future?

Employer subsidized transit passes are embedded in the US taxation system and win-win-win is one of the rationales used to justify such policy. Efforts are currently being made to increase their adoption by employers and employees in order to reduce single occupancy vehicle commuting. Our analysis suggests that employer sponsored transit pass may additionally have a positive influence on walking. Todd Litman at the Victoria Transportation Institute has been a champion of the adoption of these public transit incentives in Canada for some times. Yet, there is scepticism as to how equitable the policy can be. Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of political will to address the question of commute-related taxation, such as transit passes and untaxed parking benefits.

TS: You attend school in Vancouver - if you could change one thing about their transit system to make it more user-friendly, what would it be?

I live in a place where a good transit connection exists between my home and the locations I go to the most. Higher frequency of service is one of the best things I could get. It makes schedules obsolete. Yet one of the greatest problems that Vancouver faces, in my opinion at least, is the limited ability of the transit provider to establish a dense network of frequent service that covers the entire Greater Vancouver Regional District. Unsuitable land use and lack of funding are major concerns.

TS: Given that transit users are more likely to walk than non-transit users, do you have any plans to look at the obesity rates and/or metabolic health of transit vs non-transit users?

For the moment I personally plan to focus on looking at behaviours, and their association with the physical, social and policy environment. There are already at least two analyses on obesity and transit use in the journal Preventive Medicine [Travis’ Note: check out said papers here, here, and here], and we should expect more given the political momentum that the issue gained in recent years. Your blog is a great example of the high attention given to obesity. The pathway between transit use and obesity is likely to be confounded and mediated by diverse factors, as obesity is influenced by both the caloric intake and the energetic output. I’m not sure this is where I can best spend my energy.
Special thanks to Ugo Lachapelle for taking the time to answer all of our questions. Have a great weekend!


Related Posts:

1. Physical Activity and Health: the Early Years

2. Fitness Tip: Myth of the Fat Burning Zone

3. Fitness Tip: Benefits of a Single Exercise Session

Lachapelle, U., & Frank, L. (2009). Transit and Health: Mode of Transport, Employer-Sponsored Public Transit Pass Programs, and Physical Activity Journal of Public Health Policy, 30 DOI: 10.1057/jphp.2008.52

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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