The type of car-dependent suburbs that contribute to less healthy lifestyles. Photo courtesy of The Daily Hive.

A new Canadian study delivered a dire warning about suburban, car-dependent living in the Metro Vancouver area: it’s killing people. There probably are lessons here for Fairfax County.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Health and Community Design Lab partnered with multiple government agencies, local health authorities, and transportation offices for a study called “Where Matters: Health & Economic Impacts of Where We Live.” The main conclusion was that suburban, car-dependent neighborhoods lead to unhealthy lifestyles, while dense, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods with plentiful parks encourage residents to be more physically active, among many other benefits.

According to the researchers, very few studies examined how transportation investment, walkability and access to green space were associated with less chronic disease and lower health care costs. Their study’s key findings, however, revealed stark contrasts between the lifestyle and health outcomes of the two types of urban areas.

Among the results of the study, people who live in a walkable neighborhood when compared to a suburban, car-dependent area, were:

45% more likely to walk for transportation, and 17% more likely to meet the weekly recommended level of physical activity;

  • 39% less likely to have diabetes;
  • 42% less likely to be obese;
  • 23% less likely to have stressful days; and
  • 47% more likely to have a strong sense of community belonging.

Through its analysis of healthcare cost data, researchers also determined that:

  • People living in a moderately walkable area have 23% less diabetes-related healthcare costs than people in a car-dependent area;
  • 47% less hypertension-related healthcare costs; and
  • 31% less heart disease-related healthcare costs.

In real dollar figures, the differences in healthcare costs were stark — and when multiplied with the population affected, the costs were in the tens of millions. For example, diabetes-related costs were more than double for someone living in a car-dependent area over someone living in a walkable area.

In short, there are a lot of benefits from designing neighborhoods to be oriented around walking and cycling and to have ample parks, green space, and open space. The study asserted that, in Canada, major transportation investment decisions rarely account for the potential health impacts and related costs of not having walkable neighborhoods and green space.

This also is true of Virginia, but it is improving. We are especially encouraged that Fairfax County is taking a Health in All Things approach to future policies that will take into consideration the benefits of designs that promote more healthy and active lifestyles.

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