The time has come for a national strategy to boost everyday walking, cycling, and other forms of active transportation.
Eight of Canada’s leading health organizations are calling on the Federal Minister of Health to support the development of a strategy that will set ambitious targets for increased active transportation and identify opportunities for collaborative action across the country.
“Supporting active transportation is one of the most effective ways for Canada to save lives, reduce rates of chronic disease, and save health care costs” noted Dr. Eric Notebaert, Emergency Room Physician and Board member for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).
Signatories to the joint letter include Heart & Stroke, Diabetes Canada, Canadian Cancer Society, The Canadian Lung Association, Asthma Canada, the Alzheimer Society of Canada, Upstream, and CAPE.
The joint letter outlines a powerful public health and financial case for active transportation. Chronic diseases consume 67 per cent of the health care budget in Canada. These diseases cost Canadians $190 billion annually: about $65 billion in treatment and $135 billion in lost productivity.
Further, chronic disease rates are increasing rapidly, by about 14 per cent a year. As a result, health care costs threaten to overwhelm budgets across the country.
Fortunately, there is a way to reverse this rising tide. Physical activity reduces the risk of over 25 chronic health conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. It also benefits mental health and arthritis.
One study found that each hour of moderate to vigorous activity per week can reduce the risk of premature death from all causes by four to nine per cent.
Yet fewer than one in five Canadian adults get the 150 minutes of physical activity needed to achieve health benefits. And fewer than one in 10 Canadian children get the 60 minutes a day of physical activity needed for healthy growth and development.
Lack of time is a leading barrier to increased physical activity. Active transportation allows people to integrate exercise into their daily lives by walking or cycling to school, work, or on errands.
Changes to the built environment and other measures can increase physical activity at a population scale, significantly reducing chronic diseases and their costs. One study found that the risk of premature death from all causes can be decreased by 28 per cent among people who cycle three hours per week and by 22 per cent among people who walk 29 minutes per day, seven days a week.
Increased walking and cycling can also reduce air pollution and associated health impacts by substituting for polluting short car trips.
Safety is another benefit. Vehicle-related collisions are responsible for about 1,800 deaths and 150,000 injuries each year in Canada. Pedestrians and cyclists are over-represented in these numbers. Changes such as speed reductions, separated bike lanes, and improved pedestrian crossings can significantly reduce these casualties.
Further, investing in active transportation and public transit increases access to jobs, services, and recreational opportunities among those who are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.
For all these reasons and more, Canadian health organizations urge our new Federal Minister to support the development of a national active transportation strategy. While the Federal Government has announced significant investments in public transit, green infrastructure, and transportation systems, without a national active transportation strategy, we fear that we will miss the opportunity to maximize the health benefits that could result from these federal investments.
A broad alliance of walking, cycling, and active school travel experts have joined forces to lead the development of a strategy. We call on the Federal Minister of Health to contribute resources to this effort, to help make active transportation the safe, healthy, enjoyable choice.
Over the decades Canada has fallen behind other affluent countries that have been proactive in nurturing active transportation. It’s time to put us back where we belong, as leaders, not laggards.
Kim Perrotta MHSc, Executive Director, CAPE
Dr. Eric Notebaert, Board Director, CAPE