Portland Century - August 18th

New study: Less driving would make Oregon healthier

Posted by on May 14th, 2009 at 8:29 am

Download the study here.

Portland-based Upstream Public Health has just released an important new statewide study that draws a clear connection between transportation policy decisions and people’s health.

The study — Oregon’s first-ever statewide Health Impact Assessment (HIA) — was commissioned by Upstream and funded by the Northwest Health Foundation. Upstream collaborated with Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and an advisory committee made up of a diverse range of experts from the planning, health, transportation engineering, and advocacy fields.

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“Why do we routinely assess how a bridge or a highway impacts air quality, but fail to take the next step of estimating how many kids will get asthma as a result?”
— Mel Rader, project director

The study looked at how 11 of Governor Kulongoski’s proposed policies* to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and meet established greenhouse gas emissions goals would benefit or harm the well-being of Oregonians. (*those policies include things like increasing costs for driving single-occupancy vehicles, improving public transit, and investing in bike/ped infrastructure).

In a statement about the study released yesterday, Upstream noted:

“The Oregon legislature is considering a substantial shift in how it plans and invests in the state’s transportation system as part of an effort to promote alternatives to driving. The study… found that reducing VMT doesn’t just help the environment — it also has significant health benefits in general.”

This may sound obvious to many of you, but in the game of politics, it’s imperative to have a credible and comprehensive study to help make the point with legislators.

The project director who oversaw the study, Mel Rader, had some choice words for the status quo,

“Transportation policy affects our health, and it is high time we carefully examined how our highways affect our lungs and waistlines… Why do we routinely assess how a bridge or a highway impacts air quality, but fail to take the next step of estimating how many kids will get asthma as a result?”

BTA Bike Boulevard Ride

Healthy people.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Southeast Portland Rep. Jules Bailey, who has already shown himself as an ardent supporter of non-motorized transportation and who sits on the House Transportation Committee in Salem said, “This isn’t just good for the planet and our health — it costs less and is good for our economy.”

Here are the study findings (emphasis mine):

  • Implementing a combination of policies is the best way to promote the positive health benefits of alternative forms of transportation.
  • Creating affordable neighborhoods that are high-density, mixed-use, and highly connected will make people more active, decrease air pollution, and reduce car crash fatalities.
  • Employer parking fees would promote health more than a gas or a vehicle-miles-traveled tax because it would actually shift people away from driving to public transit.
  • Driving-related taxes may disproportionately impact low-income, elderly or disabled individuals. If taxes are put into place, significant revenues from them should be re-invested in low-income communities through strategies such as improving access to public transit and building affordable housing in centrally-located neighborhoods.

This study’s findings come at a perfect time. Down in Salem, advocates are scrambling to make sure that the Governor’s Transportation Bill (HB 2001) includes adequate funding for non-motorized transportation. So far, there has been no mention of increased bike funding in the bill and advocates have struggled through a legislative session that has not been kind to bikes.

The BTA is hopeful that upcoming versions of the bill will include a non-motorized funding pot and they expect new amendments to be released any day now.

— You can learn more information about the study, and download fact sheets and the executive summary at UpstreamPublicHealth.org.

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27 Comments
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    joel May 14, 2009 at 9:05 am

    “Why do we routinely assess how a bridge or a highway impacts air quality, but fail to take the next step of estimating how many kids will get asthma as a result?”

    this is something i have been consistently amazed and baffled by – considering how much people get riled up by secondhand smoke. the latter, we can easily blame on a Big Evil Corporation ™, whereas the former requires we (as a society) lay substantial blame at our own feet for driving so damn much, something we are substantially less willing to do, especially considering the far greater changes it would require in our lifestyle.

    with the auto industry in disarray, and without the budget they have historically operated with, i think we may well have a notable opportunity to do some major reshaping of policy that can have significant benefits as concerns our health, infrastructure, and general well-being. normally im not a big fan of kickin em while theyre down, but i think i can make an exception here 🙂

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    Zaphod May 14, 2009 at 9:14 am

    This is a great story.

    Joel +1

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    ScottG May 14, 2009 at 9:21 am

    The more cycling advocacy gets entwined with public health advocacy, the better. This will only serve to open more doors for us.

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    Vance Longwell May 14, 2009 at 9:22 am

    What pray-tell is a, “positive health benefit”? Let’s see some numbers. Oh, and I don’t consider any one’s happiness to be a health benefit.

    Implementing a combination of policies is the best way to promote the positive health benefits of alternative forms of transportation.

    More T.O.D.s? Seriously? Goldschmidt bilking the Oregon taxpayers out of 60 mill didn’t teach any lessons? The fact that developers can’t GIVE AWAY T.O.D square-footage until they retrofit car parking leads you to believe more will succeed, how? Perhaps by, “affordable”, you mean like the gentrification of inner NE and SE neighborhoods?

    By the way, since when can you force people to be more physically fit? Or does the word, “make”, in this context mean something different to the policy makers than it does me?

    Creating affordable neighborhoods that are high-density, mixed-use, and highly connected will make people more active, decrease air pollution, and reduce car crash fatalities.

    What’s better about one person riding around on a bus that gets maybe 2 miles per gallon of diesel, and one person operating a gasoline powered car that gets 30+? What leads these researchers to believe they know exactly why people don’t use mass-transit in numbers they approve of, in the first plac? Mass transit is the unrecognized symbol of poverty in a nation that virtually runs on status and upward mobility. When are the elitist, liberal snobs that dream this stuff up going to realize that mass-transit just aint gonna happen. Ever.

    So, no idea how to actually get this fantastic, “shift”, to succeed where it’s failed time and again for over a century, but it’s certainly worth upsetting the free-market (Employer mandates), and burdening local business financially during an economic recovery. Yup. That’s some book learnin’ fer ya.

    Employer parking fees would promote health more than a gas or a vehicle-miles-traveled tax because it would actually shift people away from driving to public transit.

    Driving-related taxes may disproportionately impact low-income, elderly or disabled individuals. If taxes are put into place, significant revenues from them should be re-invested in low-income communities through strategies such as improving access to public transit and building affordable housing in centrally-located neighborhoods.

    You can just SAY it over, and over and it still won’t be true. I’ll BET the power elite in this town would dearly love to get poor people off of the roads, and on to a bus, where they belong. They have a vested interest in decreasing the upward mobility of the class beneath them, thereby protecting their own little piece of the pie. Of course this will require the liberal application of the delusion that they are helping people.

    Vilify the car all you want. Go ahead. Continue to diminish poor people’s access to the road. In the end all you’ll accomplish is indemnifying the personal automobile as the Holy-Grail of status symbols. You’ll effectively martyr the cause you oppose and create the exact opposite effect you wish. Forbid the car, and it will quickly become the must have of every person, on a state level if you’re not careful.

    Cars keep rural areas in, “contact”, with the world around them. Without cars what happens to communities like La Grande, Pendlton, Baker, Sumpter… and their national equivalent? What about hundreds of thousands of industry workers during a depression? What about Oregon’s tourist industry that exists because of summer road-trips?

    Why cars? Why not the factories that build them, the factories that build those factories, and so on? Why start at the bottom of the economic class structure to attack GHGE? I’ll tell you why. It’s a class thing. “Those darn NASCAR fans. How dare they enjoy such a vulgar pursuit. At my asthmatic kids expense no less! Argh, and look they even get positive attention from – suitable admirers! Button down cubicle dwellers jealous that the next door gearhead gets all the girls/boys. That’s what this is all about.

    Class.

    It’s no one’s business how the next guy gets around. Your personal liberty stealing agenda is class-war with a Green mask on. Plain and simple. You can’t stand next to a co-gen plant and tell me the car driving by is killing you. I’m not buying it. Furthermore, stop making your insecurities into laws.

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    ScottG May 14, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Vance, I can sympathize with some of what you say about personal liberty, but the problem is that cars are 1) the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in this country, 2) have enormous “external” costs to public health and the environment.

    Let’s bring the true cost of driving in line with reality (by reducing these subsidies and incorporating the external costs) and let the market do its work.

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    Vance Longwell May 14, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Ya I hear ya Scott G. #5 but you are still talking about using economics to do the heavy lifting. When excise taxes (I mean a tax on behaviors, if that’s not what, “excise”, means.) are used to change behaviors they give people who can afford to choose no incentive. I think a supportive mention would be the way traffic fines are levied in some European countries. However, for poor people there are rarely choices, and always mandates. Big difference there in perception, and it is perception that is the eternal nemesis of mass transit.

    Pointing out that the personal automobile is subsidized is a clever argument, but I think it lacks real substance. With that spin we subsidize tons of stuff, why pick on cars? Ultimately too, you are spinning it because everything funded by the general fund could be considered to be supported by subsidies.

    Creating options is one thing. Creating mandates is altogether another thing and it is the latter that is on the table. As usual. You don’t like cars, don’t drive. You say they are killing you, I say it’s the deforestation, industrial by-products, and 6 billion people breathing in and out. Sure, kick the car out from under poor people in America. Finish us off. Let this descent into third world anarchy be complete once and for all. Let these Luddite, Greener than thou, religious fanatics have their way. I say bring it all down. I personally am much better suited for a little anarchy.

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    chriswnw May 14, 2009 at 10:06 am

    “Creating affordable neighborhoods that are high-density, mixed-use, and highly connected will make people more active, decrease air pollution, and reduce car crash fatalities.”

    I, of course, prefer the highly connected street networks that can be found in the cities and old inner suburbs — however, people don’t always take advantage of them if driving is easier. Additionally, they might need to perform errands that take them beyond the shops that lie within a 10-30 block radius.

    I’m not sure how the construction of high-density towers reduces air pollution, especially considering that their construction is far more resource intensive than more modest dwellings. And I’m not sure what they have to do with biking…

    Anyway, I have a better and simpler idea: Instead of being overly concerned with the specific mode of transportation that people choose, the government should simply pass stronger anti-pollution laws with strict fines for violators.

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    Brad May 14, 2009 at 10:13 am

    You all love this now but wait until your benevolent government mandates helmets, bike speed limits, lights, bells, mirrors, liability insurance in the name of safety and public health. How will you feel about mandatory bike registration and taxes on bikes and parts? Required bike endorsements on your ODL? What about an outright bike ban on public transit once it gets too crowded with former drivers?

    The slippery slope starts with these sorts of “benevolent” policies.

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    chriswnw May 14, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Vance, public transit does seem to be well-used in Portland, but I think that is mainly because a lot of people work downtown, where it it is extremely expensive to park. Expensive parking is the only thing that gets lots people on the bus or MAX — ridership would consist mainly of car-free bohemians/hipsters and members of the underclass if high parking costs weren’t goading people into riding the bus. You don’t see large numbers of people taking public transit to office parks in the burbs. I have to wonder if it isn’t more “green” for a person to drive ten miles to a nearby office park than it is for them to take public transit 25 miles from their suburb to downtown.

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    RyNO Dan May 14, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Happiness seems like a positive health benefit to me. 8^)

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    Vance Longwell May 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

    There’s a young fella who did some math on net mass-transit benefits based upon the number of riders it takes to yield a net benefit for the environment. I wish I’d kept that .pdf. It was fringe, but it was also pretty counter to the current Green religious movement, so I’m inclined…

    He was saying that mass-transit, because of ridership not something inherently wrong with mass-transit, is actually hurting us, not helping us. Apparently ridership has to be a lot higher than the powers-that-be would have you believe in order to net any benefits at all. This lie is told by those who are economically out-of-touch with the realities of mass-transit; and I think they only, “hope”, that if they build it, they will come, so to speak.

    See, and I know just as many people from cities south of us who consider our parking prices to be insanely low.

    We do agree that it’s considerable to let the free-market sort this out.

    I wonder just what mass-transit is doing for us sometimes. I’m all focused on those train-tracks downtown that are on streets I USED to use, and buses parked in the bike-lane, that I have to use, and empty ones outside of the work commute times, and so on. I’d be willing to bet that even with tripling ridership from levels it’s at now still wouldn’t net any real environmental benefit. Just my opinion.

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    peejay May 14, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I like all this talk that now the poor car owners are feeling victimized! Nobody’s taking your car away, Vance! They’re not taking the cars away from anybody who’s willing to pay the true cost of driving, as long as that includes the externalized costs that are currently “off the books” like the Iraq war was off the books in Bush’s budgets.

    A lot of poor people are obligated to buy and maintain a car because there’s no alternative for them to get to their low-paying jobs. If some of our infrastructure were redirected to support those alternatives (something that does happen in Portland, but has a long way to go), then people will have a real choice to use a car or not.

    In remote rural areas, the automobile is essential, and nobody denies that. And people should have the choice to live in those areas. But should everybody live out there, if we all subsidize the infrastructure that makes second homes and 100-mile daily commutes possible? If you live in the woods, you’ve accepted the risks of being in proximity to bears and other wildlife, and you deal with higher costs of running the power grid to your remote cabin. You should accept the higher cost of getting around in such a remote area, as well.

    All this talk about freedom needs to be flipped on its head. Most people do not have the freedom NOT to drive. I wish to give them that freedom – the freedom to have a choice in how they get around. Why, Vance, do you wish to deny them that freedom? Why do you want to take freedom away from Americans?

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    Diogo May 14, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Vance,

    You touch the core of this issue when you say that perception is the main nemesis of public transportation.

    Other than that, everything you say is one big contradiction. You can’t call it a symbol of poverty and a symbol of elitism at the same time. By what you say, everything is symbol of poverty, cars AND public transportation. Make up your mind! It can’t be a matter of mere perception and a matter of “life and death” for the poor at the same time (“finish us off??!!”). You cant’ complain that you are too poor to own a car and then rail at proposals to prioritize public transportation versus cars.

    No one would benefit more than the poor and young people from affordable and efficient public transportation, which would increase social mobility by allowing those who cannot afford a car to commute wherever they need to, to get a better job and what not. That is such an obvious fact that you need to be too embroiled in your stubborn cynicism to not see it.

    And, regarding subsidies to cars, your rebuttal is what lacks substance. To say that a lot of things are also subsidized is a totally meaningless argument. Subsidies, infrastructure and urban planning is exactly what makes cars not a matter of freedom but rather of individual necessity created by public policy – which is not only legitimate to change but must be changed if the greater public good requires it. With all the evidence presented (health benefits, congestion, quality of living, etc.) – you should be the one answering: Why pick on Public Transportation? Why so much public funding for cars instead?

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    Grumbley May 14, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Vance, I think the article you are referencing is this one http://tinyurl.com/ohmva8 .

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    peejay May 14, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Oh, and Vance, every time you use that phrase “nanny state,” most people around here roll their eyes and tune you out. If you’re going to play at being a libertarian, do a better job of it, mkay?

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    Vance Longwell May 14, 2009 at 11:42 am

    I know peejay #12. I’ve got the cart a tiny bit ahead of the horse. A little doomsday maybe. “Providing incentive”, and, “taking”, friend are semantically too close together to separate, IMO. Plus, for every person chained to their car, I will produce one from precisely the same demographic that just loves theirs. Any way you cut it, good intentions are going to have bad results. Like that’s the first time that’s ever happened.

    Go after the folks with money first, is all I’m saying. That and be willing to admit that your support just may be class-based.

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    Todd Boulanger May 14, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Vance – Much of the focus on BP is on tools for managing traffic in urban or urbanizing areas. There are different mobility needs and tools for urban areas.

    Part of setting the ‘true cost’ of urban mobility is setting up a funding mechanism for rural/ low income transport. (And addressing other issues like rural schools and medical care – do you transport the people to the services or decentralize the GP services to the people?)

    The SOV or car pool is a great and useful tool for rural mobility…that is until we get to the point where rural areas have commuter rail/ viable village centers or at least the ability to share a ride with rural mail delivery (Ireland) or the UPS man/ school bus.

    ——-

    These were some of the issues that came up when I worked with statewide rural communities in setting up rural clinics on Maui and the Big island. (So I assume there are some similarities in rural Oregon/ Washington.)

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    Loren May 14, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Vance has a lot to say. Alot of nothing to say. Political hopeful maybe? Stop talking to him people, he’ll go away if you do.

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    Matt Picio May 14, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    High-density, mixed-use. Sorry, don’t buy it. This is the reasoning that Metro uses to justify densification and further growth. We don’t need high-density, and we don’t necessarily need mixed-use. If you don’t believe me, think about the areas of Portland that work. One of the first that comes to mind for me is Buckman/Sunnyside (If we stretch the definition slightly, SE from MLK to 39th and Burnside south to Powell). Why does it work so well? Highly connected (they got that part right), easy access to services (grocery stores, barber, dry-cleaning, shops, schools, parks, and the county building and some social services), a mix of housing types and densities, from 1 dwelling per 10,000sf (Ladd’s and other large house areas) to 10+ dwellings in the same space (apartments on Belmont and Hawthorne). Tree-lined streets. Porches, and other “social” area at the front of houses.

    Most modern multi-use, high-density developments have no social space in front. They destroy all existing trees on the lot before construction. They have no garden space, and little space devoted to areas that can be “customized” by the residents. (To be fair, neither do most apartment buildings, but in inner SE the apartment buildings are typically separated from each other by “house” residences or commercial shops. When they cluster, they tend to cluster along arterials like Belmont and Hawthorne.

    But that’s only partially related to the study – if you want to discuss that issues, come to the Worthy Issues Ride tomorrow (Friday) evening at 6:30pm at the Vera Katz statue on the Esplanade.

    As for the rest of the study – kudos! About time there are some studies to confirm what many of us have known for some time, and can be used to influence those policy makers who need the reassurance of statistics and procedure.

    Vance (#4) does not consider happiness to be a health benefit. Well, Vance, there are a number of well-regarded studies that disagree with you, and so do I. My own experience has been that I get sick less, am less stressed, and sleep and perform better when I’m happy. Your mileage may vary, though, so make of that what you will.

    Loren (#18) – I don’t think Vance is going away, nor do I think he should. First off, he frequently makes good points, and from time to time has some very keen observations, despite the fact that I disagree with 80% of what he believes. Secondly, his arguments allow the rest of us to refine ours, and they are a lot more effective when we take them against those who affect policy.

    It’s good practice, and I appreciate that.

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    Pete May 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Huh. Where I live now people LOVE their cars… it’s the poor people who are forced to ride bikes. It’s a class thing for sure. We have lots of different types of public transportation, at least from what I gather from the badges on the sides of the Ford Expeditions that the supervisors drive around.

    I chose to bike in Oregon because I love to; I choose to ride down here because I don’t want to die in a car (four-car pileup right next to me driving to a job interview yesterday!). It’s “Bike to Work Day” today in your neighboring state to the south, but you’d never know it listening to the accident reports and sirens during rush hour this morning. Also Caltrain was delayed when it hit a car trying to beat it across the tracks.

    Brad, it’s not the government mandating those regulations – they were born of heavy auto insurance industry lobbying. (To date myself: when I was growing up drunk driving was bragged about and deaths common, I remember state mandatory seat belt laws repealed by voters twice before they became federally imposed through funding policies, and my Mom to this day refuses to wear hers because she feels it’s her right to choose). When you see cycling become so dense that we’re crashing into each other and costing insurance companies significant risk is when those mandates you mention will show up. As long as everyone else keeps driving, though, we’ll keep enjoying our freedoms as cyclists.

    Joel, you’re not necessarily kicking them while they’re down, so much as not paying them another fortune to get back up again! (Yeah, I’m also old enough to remember the last Chrysler bailout).

    And Vance, I agree, we shouldn’t disincentivize driving based on health, we should tax the crap out of being irresponsible for our own health instead. In my last company one overweight guy who ate at Burger King every day and was too lazy to take the stairs almost single-handedly jacked our group health insurance rates up 38%. I could care less if he drives or not.

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    Joe May 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    love this story, Thank You 🙂

    Joe

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    Paul Tay May 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    This is THE dumbest news.

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    Joe May 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    on a side note how come some car drivers
    think that a gas tax rips them off? why build more bike paths with my tax money i hear, think its just car fokes bitchin about things they have no idea about!

    Joe

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    chriswnw May 14, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I concur with Matt regarding the brutalism of modern day mixed-use developments. I’d prefer more human scale approaches to density, such as the 2-flats and 3-flats that you see in East Coast and Rust Belt towns. Buckman itself has a lot of old houses that are duplexes and triplexes. They don’t take up a larger footprint than a house, and leave plenty of room for greenery.

    I think connectivity is the main thing that matters, as far as walkability/bikeability is concerned. A lot of places that I bike to or walk to are not mixed-used at all — Fred Meyer is a good example. What’s important is that all vehicle traffic isn’t funneled onto a small number of congested 4-6 lane streets.

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    KWW May 14, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Driving-related taxes? Take money from the rural areas, so that you can give it back? What a joke.

    That’s just like the boondoggle of the tobacco corporation settlements where the millions and millions of money were supposed to be funneled into health care. Yeah right, what a joke.

    Newsflash, if you breathe 10% less, the environment improves!

    Seriously, proper planning and zoning improvements can do so much more for reducing pollution, than can reactive taxation.

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    She May 14, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Contention, is this not the definition of what is good news?

    Vance you are just negative to the extent I tire of reading your posts.

    I think this article is interesting and yeah while not surprising great there is some “sci study” to back it.

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    Lesa May 15, 2009 at 7:30 am

    The great thing about public health is that you can measure “positive health benefits” (and negative ones) –
    Wearing a helmet = decrease in head injuries
    Wearing seat belts = decrease in disability and death
    Eating fast food = increase in obesity rates
    Drinking during pregnancy = increase in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
    Cycling = decrease in obesity

    If individuals lived on a deserted island, affecting no one else but themselves, we probably wouldn’t care as much about the impact of vehicular transportation on our environment and public health. But we do have a society, and we are dependent on one another. Your obesity, your head injury, your FAS, your impacting the environment – it affects us all and we end up paying for that in the long run.

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