News & Observer Op-Ed: Public transit is good for you and Wake County

Within a four-mile stretch of Creedmoor Road, a thriving Raleigh thoroughfare, there are eight drugstores and umpteen fast food joints. There are sidewalks, too, but few people use them and almost every journey of more than 20 steps is made by car.

Roughly two thirds of Americans are overweight and one third are obese. Epidemiologists have correlated the increase in heart disease with the increase in fast food restaurants. They also note a direct correlation between obesity and the distance people live from the center of town. You can see all of this on Creedmoor Road and around the fringes of Raleigh, Clayton, Wake Forest, and Cary. Call it the Rite-Aid Belt.

 

In other words, we’re driving everywhere and walking almost nowhere. And that lack of exercise in our daily routine is showing up on our bathroom scales. As more drugstores pop up to serve our unhealthy, spread-out lifestyles and the city broadens out, so does our waist size. In fact, the Outer Beltline may be the leading cause of our larger belt lines.

We took our first journey buckled in a baby car seat and we’ll probably take our last in an ambulance.

In Wake County, most of us live in the suburbs and love our cars, and that’s not going to change soon. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the health problems caused by our suburban, car-dependent living pattern. Millennials and Baby Boomers are moving towards the center of town where they can walk to work and play, and our greenway system continues to grow. But one of the most effective ways we can promote health in Wake County is by voting for the Public Transit Referendum on November 8.

The proposed Wake County Transit Plan includes bus and light rail to serve residents in both urban and rural areas of the county. At the end of this 10-year plan, more than 50 percent of homes and 70 percent of jobs across the county will be within half a mile of a public transit stop.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends that adults average at least 22 daily minutes (150 minutes weekly) of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, to stay fit and healthy. Although less than half of American adults achieve this target, most public transportation passengers do, walking between transit stops.

Public transit isn’t new to Raleigh. Look at historic photographs of crowds on Fayetteville Street. You’ll notice very few overweight people and you’ll notice trolley tracks. People walked or rode the trolley to work or school back then. Many bicycled.

Of course, the fast food joints weren’t around then. But consider certain U.S. cities today, such as Seattle and Portland, Ore., where obesity is not as much of a problem as it is elsewhere. Seattle and Portland have Kentucky Fried Chicken, too, but they also have excellent public transit systems.

People who use public transit are 44 percent less likely to be overweight, 27 percent less likely to have high blood pressure, and 34 percent less likely to have diabetes. And they breathe cleaner air: Public transit produces 95 percent less carbon monoxide per passenger than private cars.

That brings me back to the empty sidewalks on Creedmoor Road. My friend Sylvia lived alone on Creedmoor Road when she was in her late 80s. Sylvia was a proud and independent grandmother and she couldn’t drive. Creedmoor Road offered Sylvia no convenient transportation – not even a sidewalk to take her to the doctor’s office or to the drugstore. She had to rely on the kindness of others to get there. She gradually lost her autonomy.

For many Wake County residents like Sylvia, transit could restore a measure of freedom and autonomy. And riding public transit offers another freedom: the freedom from the stress of driving at rush hour, allowing us instead to work, read, talk, or simply daydream as we travel. That’s another healthy benefit of public transit.

With a good public transit system, Wake County could be a leader in generating multigenerational, diversified, innovative places to live. We could easily compete with Portland, Seattle, or some of the other more innovative parts of the country.

And so on November 8 we have a choice to make about health.

If we vote no to the transit referendum we vote to continue sprawl, unhealthy living patterns, increasing congestion, and dirty air. If we vote yes we will help to build a city that is more compact, diverse, friendly, safe and, yes, healthy.

This letter was appeared in the News & Observer on October 18th as an editorial, authored by Frank Harmon, an architect in Raleigh.  Read more here.