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February 07, 2012

Sick of Driving

Traffic2There are high costs to our automobile-oriented transportation system, and one of them is our health. 

While there is much more than money to consider when dealing with issues of public health, a recent study estimated the monetary cost of children’s asthma in Long Beach and Riverside, CA, to be $18 million per year. And what’s to blame for these health costs? 

Traffic.

More specifically, pollution from traffic is to blame.  Tailpipe pollution contains smog-forming chemicals and particulate matter (and carbon dioxide, of course), both of which are known health hazards.  The junk coming out of a car’s tailpipe is directly linked to lung diseaseheart diseasediabetes, and even diminished brain function

So, cars, trucks, buses, and other motor vehicles are a big public health threat because of the tailpipe pollution they produce - but also to blame is the design of our communities that forces people to drive in the first place. 

This is the not-so-obvious conclusion of Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, and now host of the new PBS mini-series “Designing Healthy Communities” (check your local listings).  The series outlines the wide range of health costs as a result of our built environment as well as highlighting positive solutions to our problems.

Sprawling development forces Americans to live far away from work, school, and each other.  The sprawling transportation infrastructure that goes along with it - highways, high speed limits, and lack of safe sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike infrastructure - forces people off of their feet and bikes and behind the wheel of a car.    

Sprawling development forces us to build massive highways we can’t afford to maintain, to link our economic well-being to the price of oil, to breathe toxic air tainted with vehicle exhaust, and to dramatically alter our climate for generations to come.

Americans need - and want - to build communities that don’t require driving, where people can walk or bike, and where transit is accessible and practical.  When we take cars off the road, we can take pollutants out of our air and out of our lungs, and make space for people to get back on it through walking, biking, and transit.  Americans deserve healthy alternatives to the car and a clean transportation system that doesn’t depend on oil.

There are real costs to our backwards transportation system that puts cars over people.  We pay in money, in time, in oil, and with our health.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if we’re sick of our transportation system, or sick from it.  More and more, it seems like it’s both.

-- David Loss, Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign intern

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