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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Will SoPho Light Rail Affect Your Health?

Victor colorAsk yourself this question: “Am I healthy?”

Whatever your answer, it probably has less to do with your genetics and medical care than your behaviors and lifestyle.

The healthcare you receive from your doctor and nurse is important; but there is more to this story. The quality of your education and housing, your employment status, your access to healthy food and safe places to play and recreate are all important factors that influence your health and quality of life. Neighborhood conditions really do matter. If you don’t live near a park or the streets are dangerous and unsafe, you probably will avoid walking or allowing your children to play outside.

What influences your behavior and lifestyle is all around you. A phrase I recently heard used by a public health professional resonated true with me: “Your life span and health are more determined by your zip code than they are by your genetic code.” “And when physical changes are made in your neighborhood, it can change your health, too.”

How might the proposed light rail expansion from downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road affect health among residents? A quick online search will lead you to dozens of published studies linking public transit with changes in health, housing, access to jobs, education, medical care, food and recreation, stress, physical activity and neighborhood livability. Nationally, nearly one-third of transit riders get their recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day just by walking to and from their transit stops. For instance, a typical five foot, five inch resident that used a new light rail system in Charlotte, NC lost an average of about six and a half pounds while improving their quality of life as they began walking more. And some public health benefits occur whether you use light rail or not, such as job creation and successful long term business development. The health consequences of light rail are especially important for people with exceptional challenges, such as families with children that have special health needs, adults with chronic health conditions, and pregnant women. These folks can have frequent appointments with medical specialists and reliable transit can make a world of difference.

Several community partners have already come together in an effort to raise awareness on the potential health implications of the light rail extension on our South Phoenix (SoPho) neighborhoods. In collaboration with the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Arizona Alliance for Livable Communities, and multiple leaders in the SoPho communities along the proposed light rail line, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health conducted a study called a Health Impact Assessment. Residents and community-based agencies advised this study, reviewing and collecting evidence of how the proposed extension would impact public health. Working with this community advisory group, public health researchers spent over a year reviewing published research, conducting focus groups, assessing the ease and safety of walking within neighborhoods, surveying residents both in-person and online, interviewing disability case managers and business owners, and thoroughly reviewing existing health conditions and environments, such as hospital and emergency room usage, locations of pedestrian and bicyclist injuries, and mapping of travel and amenities.

The findings indicate the proposed light rail extension would have a generally positive impact on health:

  • There will be an increase in walking and biking to transit stations and a decrease in driving. Residents gain opportunities for active living through improvements in sidewalk shade and better landscaping;
  • Increasing economic development and access to jobs and higher education;
  • The risk of individual injuries actually goes down. There is safety in numbers and light rail often brings bike lane, sidewalk and crosswalk improvements that are safer for drivers, cyclists and walkers;
  • Household transportation costs may drop, especially among those who currently use or rely on a shuttle service or taxi to get to medical appointments and work;
  • Many businesses will experience post-construction growth as they invest and cater to new pedestrians and bicyclists, bringing locally accessible jobs; and
  • Residents feel better about their neighborhood (called improvements to “Community Cohesion”) which reduces stress and provides the foundation for a better quality of life and sense of place.

 

The study did however find potential challenges, such as business difficulties and mobility challenges during the construction phase and pressures on housing affordability. Safe and affordable housing play a key role in the health of community residents. The study notes the potential for some property values to rise as redevelopment and new business opportunities occur, potentially displacing lower income residents. The construction itself can disrupt business, although Valley Metro and the City of Phoenix have learned how to minimize this impact and help area businesses endure the construction from their previous and current light rail expansion efforts.

 

The community advisory group made 41 separate recommendations to enhance the positive and mitigate the negative impacts within six broad areas, including recommendations to maintain housing affordability and combat possible housing displacement in the study area, such as the strategic use of low-income housing tax credits. These recommendations are intended to help the community along the proposed light rail extension realize health benefits from the project while reducing potential negative impacts.

 

Health considerations are important; yet are but one factor among many in transportation decisions. While some families are impacted more than others, all residents are affected by light rail whether they personally ride it or not. It is helpful to know the facts while considering transportation developments. The City of Phoenix, Valley Metro, and other stakeholders are urged to consider the recommendations and stay involved in the process.

 

This study was independently supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, through the Arizona Department of Health Services. The full study and executive summary are available at the Arizona Alliance for Livable Communities website: www.LivableAZ.org.

In my opinion, investing in SoPho is critical to the economic stability of our City. As residents we must be knowledgeable of both the benefits and potential challenges but by being proactive we can ensure solutions become a part of the Light Rail development and that it promotes both economic development and a better quality of life for our residents.

If done right… light rail can catalyze SoPho, Between the 7’s as one of the most vibrant communities in the city; a place to live, work, and play. This is your opportunity and mine to ensure that South Phoenix receives the same opportunities as the rest of Phoenix to attract new businesses, connect to much needed services, improve access to education hubs, ease congestion as we grow and repair our aging streets.

Help South Phoenix become a stronger community by voting YES at the polls for Proposition 104 on August 25th and don’t forget to send in your early ballot that began showing up in mail boxes July 30th

 

Victor Vidales is a small-business owner who works and lives in the South Mountain Village. vvidales@remax.net

 

 

 

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