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Better Public Transportation Means a Healthier Minnesota

February 24, 2010 By Jeremy Dennison, Graduate Research Fellow
 
The way Americans travel might be at the grease-clogged heart of the country's obesity epidemic.  In the coming months, Minnesotans have an opportunity to put in place a transit network that will better serve residents and encourage healthier lifestyles in the Twin Cities. The state's public transportation policy will have implications that will affect how Minnesotans travel for decades to come.

The Obama administration's transportation bill has already allotted $45 million toward the construction of the new light-rail central corridor. Now it's up to the state's leaders to ensure a forward thinking transportation policy is set in motion.

As the Twin Cities area bursts at the seams with ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs, residents of the area have had to rely more and more on their cars. Simply stated, Minnesota's cities are built for automobiles. Even excluding the farthest reaches of the metro, the downtowns of Minneapolis and St Paul, though serviced by buses, are a maze of parking ramps, pay lots, and heavily-trafficked roads.  While a more intricate network of buses and light-rail trains would not be human-powered, they certainly would promote that sort of movement.

The logic is simple. A high-density area is more easily navigated by a bus or train carrying many passengers than many personal cars carrying a few people each. Yet, the public transport does not offer door-to-door service the way a car does. And so, people are more inclined to walk from place to place within a certain area. A study conducted by the School of Business at the College of New Jersey supports this theory. The study found that as urban sprawl increased around metro areas, obesity rates rose as well. Researchers found that as distances a person must travel to conduct normal business such as grocery shopping increased, the more likely he was to travel by automobile, thereby reducing physical activity.

Better public transportation in the Twin Cities cannot change the large sprawling web of suburbs, but it can mitigate their negative effects.  Sitting on a bus in from Chaska will not get anybody's heart rate going, but getting dropped off in a centralized location and walking down the streets or through the skyways to an ultimate destination will. People in motion tend to stay in motion, so the emphasis is to get them moving in the first place. A strong transport network achieves this goal.

The first obstacle to overcome in building a comprehensive public transportation network in the Twin Cities is the current economic downturn and the state's perpetual budget shortfalls due to the devotion to the "no new taxes" ideology. Yet the cost of construction would be offset by savings in other areas. According to a study by Eric Finkelstein, the direct cost of America's obesity epidemic costs $75 billion annually, with the total bill reaching $1.07 trillion by the year 2020. This statistic has resonance in Minnesota, where a quarter of all adults are obese.  Another study by Janet Rothenberg Pack outlines less tangible benefits of a strong infrastructure:  "(1) the decrease in accidents attributable to fewer car trips; (2) decreased car and truck commuting times; (3) decreased congestion and pollution; (4) welfare gains for transit riders (measured by time saved for commuters over other forms of transit); (5) welfare gains for commuter riders..." 

The city of Charlotte, North Carolina adopted this line of reasoning as they looked toward upgrading their transport infrastructure. The results have won the city the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in Policies and Regulations.  Like the Twin Cities, Charlotte suffers from sprawling development.  Less than 40% of the city's population live in the "core area" of the city's metro, compared with the national average of nearly 75% in other metropolitan areas. Charlotteans are also more at risk for obesity.

Charlotte's city planners took a broad look at the way its residents commute.  They evaluated not only highways and major thoroughfares but also city streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks and found that these less-traveled routes form an important part of the overall infrastructure. Thus, instead of only focusing attention on the city's main traffic routes, planners developed a comprehensive upgrade to the transport network.

The star of this show is the new light-rail line, similar to the one found in the Twin Cities. Its role will be to alleviate commutes and spur development along Charlotte's five corridors. To accentuate these developments, "planners...have come to realize that creating better facilities for walking and bicycle travel is an important component of transit planning...They also have dedicated capital monies to constructing more pedestrian-friendly street design...to facilitate a safer, more accessible pedestrian and bike travel option." This complete approach has had positive effects for the health of Charlotteans.  It is reported that almost one-third of light-rail riders exercised the recommended half-hour per day merely by walking to and from their regular stops. Conversely, the risk of obesity rises by three percent with each additional half-hour spent in a car.

The Twin Cities is well positioned to make the improvements seen in Charlotte.  The Central Corridor has already been planned, and money could be channeled toward the Southwest Corridor as well. Aside from the construction of light-rail lines, major adjustments to infrastructure are not required.  Minneapolis is already the second most popular city in the U.S. for bicycle commutes, and it was ranked in the top 10 bike cities by Travel & Leisure. The cities have extensive bus routes stretching into the outer ring suburbs.  If the area were to beef up the frequency with which these buses run and add a few more lines, the Twin Cities would be well on its way to an ideal transportation network.

While these improvements to metro transit may not come cheaply, they are a wise and necessary investment. Ridership is up in the Twin Cities and on the state's rural transit systems at the same time that funding is declining. Road congestion in the Twin Cities metro continues to increase; the stretch of 494 around Lyndale Avenue was recently named the 17th worst commute in the nation. To anyone who spends his morning and late afternoons parked on a stretch of choked metro pavement, the idea of relaxing with a book or iPod twice a day on a bus should seem like a breath of fresh air. 




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