About 6 or 7 years ago I attended a meeting of the transportation committee of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. The co-chair, to my surprise, was a medical doctor- specifically a pediatrician. Dr. Kyran Quinlan explained his participation saying he was tired of seeing so many children in the ER after being struck by cars. He was also alarmed at the rising incidence of diseases in children such as obesity and diabetes. He saw changing how we travel as key to addressing both.  I was sure Quinlan wasn’t the only health professional thinking this way. I was elated at the thought of joining forces with the public health community. 

Soon I began to meet others in the medical community with similar thoughts about preventing childhood as well as adult diseases (while reducing crash injuries and fatalities) by changing our land use and travel patterns. This only made the argument for more walkable, bikeable and good transit cities more powerful.

In writing my book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and The Fall of Cars, I decided to interview Karen Lee, a well-known medical doctor and epidemiologist, who is an expert in the field of “Active Transportation.”  Here’s an excerpt from my book:

“In all industrialized countries, but particularly in the United States, the leading causes of death aren’t infections or accidents, but non-communicable diseases like diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, which are responsible for something like thirty-six million deaths annually, and probably 80 percent of all preventable deaths. A sizeable chuck of those preventable deaths is due to inadequate exercise; that is, not achieving thirty minutes of moderate exercise a day.

Lots of things determine any individual’s level of activity. One person might be a devoted runner, another a couch potato. Some families live in a climate where everyone spends most of the year outdoors; others are snowbound for months at a time. Some sixty-seven-year-olds spend two hours a day playing tennis and doing yard work (I just do the tennis); some teenagers spend six in front of a computer screen. But one thing that is almost certain to determine a society’s level of activity is the kind of environment that it builds. As my friend and colleague Karen Lee puts it, “Individual decisions and society’s choices are complementary.”

She should know. Karen is about the smartest person I know on how what we choose to build affects our health. A physician and an epidemiologist with advanced degrees and scholarly research that takes pages to list, she spent seven years directing New York’s Built Environment Program, and as senior advisor of Built Environment and Health Housing at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. There she, along with Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, a bona fide transportation rock star, led the work on the city’s 2010 Active Design Guidelines, which have become a model for designing buildings, roads, and neighborhoods that promote activity, especially active transportation.”

The guidelines recommend, among other things, “accessible, pedestrian-friendly streets with high connectivity, traffic calming features, lighting, benches, and water fountains [and] developing continuous bicycle networks and incorporating

infrastructure like safe indoor and outdoor bicycle parking.”

The joining of the health community with transportation professionals may very well be the transformative step city planners have been looking for higher quality and healthier communities; I certainly think so.