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Fit to be Ride(ing): Public Transit Patrons Pretty Physically Active

• March 31, 2009 • 7:40 PM

Users of public transportation often fit in the activity guidelines proposed by the federal Health and Human Services department, just by walking to their bus or train every day.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, the U.S. Department of Human Health and Services recommends individuals be physically active for a total of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

These levels of “moderate” physical activity, such as walking, dancing or climbing stairs, can reduce obesity, hypertension and heart disease in many individuals.

But in a world of fast food and even faster workweeks, not everyone has time to squeeze even a moderate amount of moderate physical activity.

According to recently published research in the Journal of Public Health Policy, however, if you are a public transit user, odds are you don’t need to worry as much about meeting those fitness targets. University of British Columbia researchers Ugo Lachapelle and Lawrence Frank found people who ride public transportation, such as buses and subways, are more likely to maintain a healthy, physically active lifestyle courtesy of the commute to their commute than individuals who drive their own cars to work.

“Transit users are also walkers by definition because buses and trains seldom offer door-to-door service,” they said in the article, “In metropolitan Atlanta, for example, walking and cycling account for 70 percent of trips to and 76 percent of trips from Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority transit stations.”

In the study, Lachapelle and Frank analyzed a 2001-02 survey of 18,326 metropolitan Atlanta residents and their access to personal vehicles, the number of daily public transit trips, and proximity to transit stations and local merchants. Using these demographics they were able to estimate the average amount of walking each individual performed daily as an indication of their overall physical activity.

“A person that has walked on average 30 minutes in a day was considered to meet (the federal) guidelines and receive health benefits associated with an active lifestyle,” says Lachapelle.

While only 5.4 percent of the individuals surveyed actually used public transportation, the odds that they met the HHS’s physical activity requirements were 2.3 times greater than those of a car commuter.

Lachapelle and Frank are quick to specify that the results of their analysis cannot predict an activity level beyond those associated with walks to transit stations and local merchants.

“We have every reason to believe that some car riders can be extremely fit … and that some transit riders can be largely inactive apart from the walks they take to travel to destinations,” said Lachapelle, “However, our results show that on a population basis, this purposeful form of physical activity (walking) is much more strongly associated with taking public transit trips.”

Individuals who had access to and used employer-sponsored transit passes were the most likely to reach the physical fitness standard. It is evidence not that employer-sponsored passes should be promoted, but that employers should locate offices by public transit hubs (and perhaps then offer passes).

“Getting employers involved in travel-demand management can ultimately help reshape our regions,” says Lachapelle, “Employers are able to create economies of scale, in this case by having many commuters converge to their location every day. Many observers support the idea that there is much untapped opportunity for ‘greening’ the corporate taxation system (by incentivizing public transit).”

Lachapelle believes the results of his and Frank’s research will have implications for future city and transportation planning. “The study, we hope, can provide intergovernmental support for public transportation, and (promote) the need to assess the health benefits of public transit when accounting for the benefits and costs of public transit infrastructure.”

And here we thought high gas prices were motivation enough to use public transportation …

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Julia Griffin
Julia Griffin is a master's candidate in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A fellow at the Miller-McCune Center in 2009, before that she worked as a film researcher for John-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society and a producer/writer in CNN's Science and Technology Unit. She has a degree in marine biology from Duke University, and hopes to pursue a career in science and environmental journalism.

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