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Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cars: Our love and addiction to the vehicle may be making us sick. Transportation and health Part 2

Traffic.  We all hate it, we all want it fixed.  But how is that best done?  And why is a Public Health blog talking about traffic congestion anyway?  What’s public health got to do with it?

The basic transport unit has become the car.   Canadians currently own about 1.5 cars per household, or some 21 Million licensed vehicles on the roads.   In support of the fossil fuel dependent engines a massive oil and gas infrastructure has developed, some 900,000  km of roadway have been developed, Unlike  raising a family, Canada’s 24 Million licensed  drivers are expected to be trained, licensed and continue to demonstrate competency.

Regrettably some 2000 persons die each year from motor vehicle collisions. The good news is that the number that has been decreasing over the past few decades, as have serious injuries and all injuries.  The reasons engender speculation from reduced distance traveled to greatly improved engineered space for occupants of the vehicle (seat belts, air bags, structural integrity). 

Beyond the obvious of motor vehicle crashes, is the insidious impact that vehicular dependence has imparted to waistlines.  The average Canadian now commutes 25 minutes in either direction to their place of work.  That is nearly an hour of sedentary activity per day.  The dream of a single home in the suburbs has become the nightmare associated with overweight.  Not that the car is the sole contributor to the expanding girth, but in places where vehicular commutes are being replaced by active transportation, weight reductions and better control are being documented. 

Innovative approaches to maximize the use of the single vehicle have included rides-sharing (car pooling), high occupancy lanes on major commute thoroughfares, and car sharing.  Of these only car sharing invokes an increase in active transportation as access points to the jointly used cars often require a short walk to parking locations. 

Collectively road transportation accounts for three times the total global contribution of the transportation sector to greenhouse gas emissions.  In Canada road transport accounts for 18.5%  of all emissions. The total contributions of greenhouse gases being a small piece of the story of the contribution of road transportation to airshed contamination from fine particulates, diesel and carbon particulates, ozone, and nitrous oxides.  While efforts to reduce vehicle related pollution has been successful, much of the individual car gains have been onset by the increased population use of vehicles.

And by design or just human nature, housing which is in proximity to roadways tends to cater to lower socioeconomic groups and are avoided by those with wealth to purchase quieter settings.  This contributes to poorer health outcomes amongst those in proximity to more pathogenic pollutants pollutants such as diesel and carbon particles that are relatively reactive and disperse with distance from the roadway.

Two areas receiving more recent attention relate to the impact of road transport on noise, where noise is seen by some as the major contributor to increased stress amongst nearby residents and as much or more of an issue for health impacts from pollutants in its contribution to cardiac outcomes from chronic stress. The second area relates to the mental wellbeing, and while noise is one contributor, increasing evidence speaks to the chronic stresses associate with prolonged commutes.  While some drivers may enjoy a stressfree music filled commute, many commutes are associated with stressful driving conditions and the long term impact of such commutes is showing its wearing effect.

The future of the car speaks to increased automation, safety improvements that may reduce impacts on those hit by a car, shifting dependence on non-renewable resources to renewable energy use and cleaner fuels such as natural gas – little of this speaks to the need for treating the addiction and reducing our dependence on single-person fossil-fueled transport units (the car)

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