More public transit will help us all breathe easier
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More public transit will help us all breathe easier

Fewer cars on the road can help reduce air pollution and save lives.

The King Street pilot is one way to prioritize transit on Toronto’s streets. Photo by Sean Marshall from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

There is no question that climate change is one of the most urgent reasons we need to reduce the use of private automobiles. But there are other urgent reasons for switching to public transit too. One of them is air pollution and its exacerbation of asthma.

We don’t talk about air pollution in Toronto as much as we used to. The hotspot for terrible air pollution is China, where it reduces life expectancy in some regions by three years—seven years in some cities. India is now another focus, where air pollution has recently been measured at what can only be seen as catastrophic levels.

It’s never been that bad here, but we used to have “smog days” in Toronto too. There were 16 smog days in 2012; 48 in 2005. Closing coal plants helped, but improvements in air quality in the Ohio Valley, whose air drifts our way, have also been part of the solution.

The end of smog days reduced the anxiety, for some, about air pollution. But we cannot afford to be complacent.

In 2000, the chief medical officer for the province of Ontario issued the “Taking Action on Asthma” report. Among other things, it acknowledged that outdoor air pollution, including “industrial, vehicular, and photochemical smog” was a trigger of asthma, the incidence of which was steadily rising. One suggestion of the report, therefore, was to “decrease levels of motor vehicle emissions and airborne commercial and industrial pollutants.”

Asthma is a manageable condition for some, but others have to make trips to the emergency room or be hospitalized and can even experience permanent damage to their lungs.

Even for those whose asthma is under control, there are still medical and pharmaceutical costs involved, and they may have a reduced quality of life.

In Ontario, asthma is the leading reason for the hospitalization of children. It causes high rates of school absenteeism and is the direct cause of death for about 200 people a year.

A study published in 2010, which had been supported by the province’s asthma action plan, documented that between 1996 and 2005, the number of people in Ontario with asthma increased 70 per cent.

A 2002 report [PDF] by the American Public Transit Association pointed out the big difference in the contribution to pollution is that, per passenger mile, public transit produces significantly less pollution than private automobiles: “only 5% as much carbon monoxide, less than 8% as many volatile organic compounds and nearly half as much carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.” Studies have shown that children, especially if they are active outdoors in areas with high ozone levels, are more vulnerable to the pollution they inhale.

Air pollution causes or exacerbates many other serious health conditions. As of 2014, the Ontario Medical Association said it led to 9,500 premature deaths each year.

Recognizing the many connections between health and transportation, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued transportation recommendations in 2010. Two related recommendations were “improve air quality” and “expand public transportation.” One specific negative health impact noted was the exacerbation of asthma.

Despite the reduction in smog, government statistics as of 2014 indicate that rates of asthma have stayed constant since 2001. Despite the asthma action plan, little has changed for the 900,000 or so people in Ontario living with the diagnosis.

How much of a difference could a switch from private automobiles to public transit make? Lucky for us, some scholars took advantage of a small window of opportunity to study a live experiment. It turns out that switch has a pretty significant and immediate change for the better.

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, more public transit was put on to ensure traffic tie-ups wouldn’t delay athletes and fans. Morning rush-hour traffic was reduced by 22.5 per cent. Consequently, daily peak ozone levels dropped by 27.9 per cent. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of incidents of children needing medical attention for asthma in that period dropped by 41 to 44 per cent.

Reducing traffic by about a fifth chopped asthma-related doctor and hospital visits almost in half. That is a huge result. And the effect was immediate.

The costs of driving to our physical well-being are high for drivers, passengers, vulnerable road users, and everyone who breathes the air. It is time to get much more serious about public transit—not just the big, shiny projects but the more ordinary, local ones too.

The King Street pilot shows how a little investment in prioritizing transit can improve that service greatly and immediately increase ridership. We move more people, we move them faster, and we improve the environment for everyone.

We could similarly prioritize transit all over the city tomorrow for a tiny fraction of the cost of a subway line: paint more bus lanes and enforce them. All that’s lacking is the political will.

The switch to public transit improves air quality and saves lives. Ask anyone who depends on an inhaler whether they think the investment is worth it.