Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Photo by Steph & Adam
Several weeks ago I wrote a post discussing recent changes which would make students 28 and older ineligible for "student" transit passes in the City of Ottawa (where I currently reside). This has obviously upset a number of mature students, who don't see any reason why they should pay a higher bus fare than their younger counterparts. It also upset several of my colleagues who study the links between health and built environment, who see this as a step in the wrong direction for the health of Ottawans.
The built environment describes the man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity. Not surprisingly, research has consistently shown that the built environment has a strong influence on our health. For example, if you live in a dangerous neighbourhood with few parks, it is unlikely that you or your children will spend much time being physically active outdoors. If, on the other hand, you live in a safe neighbourhood with access to parks and playgrounds, there is a much better chance that you will engage in physical activity on a regular basis. Now of course the relationships aren't perfect - there will be plenty of people in beautiful neighbourhoods who never exercise, and those in dangerous communities who are healthy as a horse - but it does have an effect.
One aspect of the built environment which we have discussed numerous times on Obesity Panacea is public transit use. Commuting by transit almost always involves more walking (or cycling - many buses now have bike racks!) than making a similar trip by car. And earlier this year, Canadian researchers reported that people who commute by public transit are more likely to physical activity targets than individuals who do not take public transit (to read an interview with the authors of the study, click here). Interestingly, individuals who had access to a subsidized transit pass were also significantly more likely to reach physical activity targets. This has led some of us to suggest that increasing transit use, and reducing transit fees, could be a simple way to increase physical activity levels.
You can see now why many of us were upset when Ottawa City Council chose to raise transit fees for mature students. Making transit use less affordable is certainly not going to help people become more physically active. In fact, it is likely to do just the opposite.
When word came out that the City had increased transit fees for mature students I wrote a post on the issue, which you can read here. I urged our readers to email Ottawa City Council asking them to reconsider, and I sent an email to my own City Councillor. Although I was pleased to recently receive an email from my Councillor thoughtfully detailing the reasons for the increased transit fees for mature students, I was disappointed to see that all of the reasons were purely financial.
Financial costs are important, but there are other costs that should be considered in this matter. For example, according to the City of Ottawa website, over 40% of Ottawa residents are sedentary to the point that it negatively affects their health (in my ward of Rideau-Vanier, the number increases to nearly 50%). Further, recent research has suggested that increased use of public transit can result in significant savings in health spending over the long-term. Given the fact that the City of Ottawa Public Health Department considers physical activity a "Major Public Health Issue", as well as the known links between transit fees and physical activity levels, it would seem that financial costs should not be the only important consideration when City Council is voting on transit fees.
My Councillor assured me that the City is committed to growing ridership, and I believe him. If you have an opinion on this issue, I urge you to email your City Councillor, whose email can be found here. Or if you are from outside of Ottawa, please contact Mayor Larry O'Brien, whose contact information can be found here. While financial considerations are important, increasing transit fees may cost all of us in the long run.
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