Boston Globe editorial: Health and the Big Dig

By Laurie Stillman
During my cab ride home following a surgeon general’s meeting on the environment and health, I asked my driver what he thought about the Big Dig. Clearly angry, he ranted about how he thought it was a big waste of taxpayer money because he had noticed little improvement in traffic flow.

He then pointed to downtown Boston and said, “If they had spent half of the $15 billion price tag on building affordable housing, people wouldn’t be driving to work every day from the suburbs and clogging up the roads.” I continued his thought by mentioning that if the remainder were spent on a greatly enhanced and cheaper public transportation system, car traffic could be reduced even that much more.
There are more than 4 million cars on Massachusetts roads. But here is another statistic: The Commonwealth has one of the highest asthma rates in the country. One in five households with children report at least one child with the disease. Moreover, the rate of obesity of Massachusetts adults increased by a staggering 81 percent between 1990 and 2000. Over half of our state’s adults are overweight.
What do these two public health epidemics, obesity and asthma, have in common? The answer is our great reliance on the automobile. Our extensive reliance on polluting cars and diesel buses is damaging our airways and cardiovascular systems. Further, excessive car travel has rendered daily exercise a virtual thing of the past. And lack of exercise leads to being overweight.
The public health costs associated with air pollution are significant. These include: high rates of school absenteeism, lost work time and wages, rising health insurance costs, lower work productivity, and millions of dollars spent in direct costs for medical care.
At the surgeon general’s meeting, we learned about a fascinating study linking traffic and asthma. During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, the city virtually banned single-occupant cars in order to prevent gridlock. The scientists who conducted the study compared hospitalizations and emergency room visits for respiratory difficulties during the Olympics to the four weeks before and after the Games. They found that asthma-related acute care events decreased by 42 percent during the car ban.
We need to think differently about transportation policy and our auto-dependent ways as a means of protecting not only human health but our environment as well. (Not to mention reducing our dangerous reliance on foreign oil.) A number of steps can be taken that do not require extraordinary measures:
Let’s put a stop to investing in automobile transportation solutions like the Big Dig. The problem is not that we don’t have enough roads. We need to move people and goods for a thriving economy, but an excellent public transportation system that is safe, clean, and easily accessible can do the job just as well — without the pollution.
Consumers should demand and regulations should mandate drastically improved fuel efficiency and cleaner fuels for cars. We also have to end our fascination with large, gas-guzzling vehicles.)
The Department of Environmental Protection should conduct wider enforcement of their diesel bus anti-idling law, and schools should prohibit idling school buses. All bus transportation companies should invest in cleaner bus technologies such as diesel oxidation catalysts. The Legislature should place public transportation on the top of its agenda and funnel grants to encourage the proliferation of sidewalks and bike paths on every street in every community so pedestrians can more easily commute to their destinations. With more walkers and bicyclists, our streets will be safer, and obesity will diminish.
Public health workers need to broaden their expertise to include community planning.
The governor, the Legislature, and the Turnpike Authority should be accelerating their compliance with public transportation agreements that were forged to offset the environmental impact of the Big Dig instead of stonewalling, delaying, and hoping that public transportation advocates will just get on their bicycles and ride away.
In the long term we need to invest in environmentally friendly development strategies, of which there are many working models. These models encourage land-use policies that incorporate antisprawl measures, mixed-use development, transit options, and open spaces. Moreover, we need a well-funded research and development effort that supports cleaner renewable energies and superior transit technologies. And we need to transform our culture from one that relies less on car wheels to one that depends more on shoe heels.
Laurie Stillman is executive director of the New England Asthma Regional Council and former director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.