Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
"Norms change slowly, but when they do, it's like a snowball." That was Larry Cohen, founder and executive director of the Prevention Institute, describing the growing momentum he sees in the movement to ensure that our transportation policies take our health into consideration.
Cohen opened a session on Tuesday afternoon by describing how federal transportation policies and funding impact decision making at the national, state and local level. Transportation funding is the seventh largest part of the federal budget, and Cohen reminded the audience that the number one public space most people have access to is the street. So how can the street help everyone be healthy?
Later in the session, Carolyn Vorhees of the University of Maryland described one way: by helping children walk or bike to school. Vorhees conducted a survey of school district supervisors in Maryland to get a sense of how they encourage or discourage students from walking or biking to school. She found that elementary schools were more likely to support walking or biking than middle or high schools, schools in urban and suburban areas more likely than those in rural ones, and schools in lower-income areas more likely than higher-income ones. Overall, 17 of the 24 counties had Safe Routes to School programs in place and Vorhees anticipates that her findings may help funders and school districts figure out ways to work together to support physical activity.
Getting a bit more hands on, Amy Schulz and Jamila Kwarteng shared their findings from an assessment they conducted in Detroit. The University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers looked at sidewalks in three different neighborhoods in the Motor City, evaluating their presence and quality. They asked the question: Does the mere presence of sidewalks influence how active people are? The answer? Yes.
They found that people with a higher proportion of sidewalks in good condition in their area were more likely to be active. This held regardless of poverty level. Next they want to examine other aspects of the built environment, and actually track people's movements with GPS, to get a better understanding of where people are active and the neighborhood factors that may influence that.
The RWJF national program Active Living Research conducts a lot of research on how the built environment can support - or discourage - physical activity among children and teens. A research synthesis ALR produced last summer shows that walking or biking to school can help kids be more active overall, sidewalks and bike lanes promote physical activity, and public transit use is linked to more physical activity and lower rates of obesity.