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LETTER: Investing in a Walk-able City Pays for Itself

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There are mountains of research showing how active transportation can help us meet community, health, and environmental goals. However, this research often happens in big cities or in other provinces/countries. St. John’s has unique geography, culture, climate, and more, and we need research that takes those factors into account.

City-specific research about how spending on pedestrian infrastructure can improve health and environment goals did not exist for St. John’s, NL. The reason this research is not done is because information is hard to gather and requires time, resources, money, and expertise beyond that of municipal staff or community groups. This lack of evidence makes it impossible for evidence informed decision making about costs and benefits to happen around active transportation in our city.

This research did not exist in St. John’s—until now. A full report of my research into the health and economic benefits of walking in St. John’s NL can be found here, but the most important and interesting findings will be shared in this letter.

New tools are now available to make this research easier. The World Health Organization HEAT (Health Economic Assessment Toolkit) tool quantifies the health and economic impact of investment into walking or bicycling in a city. We used St. John’s data to study the costs and benefits of investing in walking. Our results show that investments in walking—in the form of more and better sidewalks, better signage, and traffic calming in St. John’s NL—would have major health and economic benefits.

With an investment of $3 million annually into improving walkability in St. John’s, the economic benefits over a 10-year period would outweigh the costs by four times. The total economic benefit from doubling walking from 4.6% of trips to 9.2% of trips would be $117,656,000. The majority of the benefit comes from increase physical activity which would prevent 18 premature deaths in St. John’s and improve many health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and depression. There would be increased risks, mostly due to air pollution, but these risks are small, accounting for only 0.2 premature deaths.

These results are estimated over a 10-year period. Over a 15-year period however, the benefits outweigh the costs by six times. Investments into active transportation infrastructure have long-term and lasting economic benefits that must be considered by municipal decision makers. In the era of short-term pilot projects, we must understand that the benefit of these investments comes over the long-term.

The City of St. John’s is tackling global issues like the environmental crisis, and creating inclusive, healthy, and equitable communities. Increasing the walkability of St. John’s is an efficient and cost-effective way to achieve these goals. Environments that not only make walking a safe option, but a desirable option over motorized transportation can enhance population health, connectivity, and environmental health.

Council seems to be aware of this, having already committed to enhancing St. John’s’ walkability. The 2019 – 2029 Strategic Plan emphasizes safe and accessible active transportation networks and improved safety for all users. Recent cuts to the Capital Works budget, short-term temporary pedestrian projects, and the constant contention around winter snow clearing send the message that pedestrianism is a low priority item for the City.

Current pedestrian projects highlight the desire for more active transportation infrastructure in St. John’s. However, this cannot be the end of our investment and this cannot be the goal that we aspire to. St. John’s has the potential for so much more. We can make St. John’s a walkable city by setting targets for walking and using the excitement of the pedestrian mall to develop lasting infrastructure that promotes and encourages active transportation. The cost-benefit of these investments is clear. We need to invest today so that current and future generations can benefit.

Asia Holloway is an avid walker and has made the conscious decision to rely exclusively on active and public transportation. Through her work with Dr. Daniel Fuller (Canadian Research Chair in Population Physical Activity) and involvement with the Challenging Car Culture Coalition of the Social Justice Cooperative, she has become an advocate for walkability and walkers’ rights in St. John’s NL.

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