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Connecting Transit and Health

by Deborah Pasha James and Jeanne B. Hewitt

One of the earliest health and anatomy lessons for many of us came from the traditional spiritual "Dem Bones," when as children we sang how "the toe bone's connected to the foot bone," the foot bone to the ankle, the shin, on up to the neck and head.

The lesson reflects the importance of connectivity. Without the knee bone, leg bone or even the tiniest of bones, the body's ability to work and move about as a whole suffers. We can apply this lesson today as we consider how we get places and how we create healthy, sustainable communities.

Experts and business leaders tell us that a high-functioning transit system is required for any region to compete economically. Sustainable transportation - which includes walking, biking and the use of mass transit - provides the groundwork for healthy, thriving communities. By contrast to single-occupancy motor vehicles, these other means of travel connect people with each other and to jobs and school, while minimizing environmental pollution.

Thus, this same connectivity helps our entire population lead healthier, more productive and fulfilling lives while helping to harness runaway health care and social costs.

For example, as a nation we spend more than $2 trillion a year on medical care, nearly half what the rest of the world combined spends. Yet we are 30th among developed nations in life expectancy and have a higher rate of infant mortality than Cuba.

Emerging evidence links both chemical pollution and persistent stress to asthma, cancers, heart disease, poor infant health and death as well as violence. These and other conditions are further exacerbated by the isolation that can result when people lack mobility. Our transportation options or a lack of them are taking a serious human toll while dramatically adding to health care costs that are borne by all of us.

A new vision with preventive strategies is needed now to effectively construct healthier, globally competitive communities in our region. Doing so requires that we gain a clearer understanding of the issues in our cities and how they impact us all. And in the process, we should consider the important role a well-designed, properly funded regional transit system must play in making that vision a reality throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

These issues will be explored this week when the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum presides over a national town hall meeting in Milwaukee. The public is encouraged to attend, discuss these topics with local, state and national leaders and submit their ideas at 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Centennial Hall in the Milwaukee Public Library, 733 N. 8th St. Ideas gathered will be shared with decision-makers.

As nursing professionals in metro Milwaukee, the issue for us is simple and clear. A region that is connected from head to toe by a combination of good private and public transportation options is critically needed. That's not just good dollars and sense; it's the right thing to do.

(This op-ed originally appeared in the Journal Sentinel on Sept. 30.)

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