This spring, TCAT is completing a timely research project on how active transportation can be linked to health equity. The National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health defines health equity as a state in which “all people can reach their full health potential and should not be disadvantaged from attaining it because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, social class, socioeconomic status or other socially determined circumstance”.
For the first phase of the project, we compared five municipal active transportation plans to understand the current place of health equity in active transportation planning. The plans selected were in Ontario, mid-sized or suburban, and within the last two years, as conversations on health/equity in transportation planning are relatively new. The list included Brampton, Kingston, Toronto, and Windsor. Saanich, BC was added as an award-winning, suburban example from Western Canada.
Plans were assessed on how consistently equity was included in the planning process and how holistically they described health outcomes. Here were some of the major findings:
- Equity considerations are rarely explicit, often implicit: All of the plans incorporated some concepts of equity but they rarely named it as such. For example, when choosing locations to install counters for foot traffic, Brampton planners stratified along “income levels” but do not state why or how income is related to active transportation rates.
- In all five plans, physical accessibility was the most common equity component: Whether it was in direct reference to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) or making it safer for older adults to get around, physical accessibility was routinely mentioned.
- Implementation and evaluation phases rarely incorporated health and/or equity: Windsor’s plan was the only one to do so, including metrics on the proportion of women, children and seniors using AT as a measure of success.
- Active transportation is a well-known aid to physical health and the environment, but fewer mentions were made of mental and community health benefits: Well known outcomes such as a decrease in cardiovascular disease and chronic illnesses were heavily cited in these plans. Toronto stood out for describing a similar reduction in mental illnesses and health care costs, as well as an increase in community belonging.
- Health benefits are general, not community-specific: No plan cited local rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease or made the link between these local rates and the expected local impacts of implementing the active transportation plan. Modeling these results could prove helpful when building the case for investment in active transportation.
While separate conversations around health and equity are becoming more and more common, there is a need to link the two and do more to address health equity in municipal transportation planning.