Transportation Reform and Public Health

A bicycle commuter in Copenhagen, Denmark (cc photo by DavidDennisPhotos)

A bicycle commuter in Copenhagen, Denmark (cc photo by DavidDennisPhotos)

It’s pretty clear that if people drove less and walked or biked more, that they’d be healthier. But how to quantify that result. Well it looks like some clever regression analysis exploiting state-by-state differences in gasoline prices and changing state gasoline tax policy has given us a rough-and-ready answer:

Charles Courtemanche, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has produced a study suggesting that permanent hikes in gas prices may slash obesity rates. The amount is hardly nominal: A sustained $1 increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline equals a 10% dip in the nation’s obesity rate–that’s about 9 million fewer obese people clogging up health care systems and costing society (and themselves) money. “The price of gas is a powerful lever when it comes to medical expenses and mortality rates,” Courtemanche says. “There’s a savings in this for all of us.”

And of course the short-term price-elasticity of gasoline consumption in the United States is currently not so high so many communities have built in a way that doesn’t provide a great deal in terms of attractive alternatives. An increase in gas prices that was driven by higher gasoline taxes, with the revenue used to fund improved transit alternatives, could produce a bigger impact than this. I’m not necessarily going to hold my breath for this happen, but it’s still the case that, as Elana Schor says, transportation reform is health reform. The nature of the built environment shapes our lifestyles, and that has a powerful impact on health outcomes.