Active Transportation Effective Communication and it's Influence on Environmental and Physical Health

"Mass transportation for short distances, under a mile, should rely mainly on the pedestrian." —Lewis Mumford."

Active Transportation is any self propelled, human powered mode of transportation (Keen, 2008).

  • Some common forms of active transportation are walking, biking, and running. Effective communication of the benefits of active transportation is essential because of the potential it creates for more opportunities to support the health and sustainability of the environment and improvement in physical health.

Effective communication can help to make positive change for the environment and physical health. In a world that is increasingly influenced by anthropogenic climate change, sustainable practices should be a priority (Von Storch & Stehr, 2006). However, essential aspects and opportunities of integrating sustainable practices into our daily lives are often missed. One of these opportunities is increased active transportation resulting in both the reduction of environmental impacts and improved physical health.

Current Challenges: Traditional Transportation

Transportation is one of the leading industries in the United States and has significant impacts on the environment and physical health (BLS, 2017).

  • Challenge: Lack of active transportation infrastructure. The accessibility of active transportation is a product of our built environments that are largely vehicle based (Winters et al., 2010).
  • Challenge: Just 11 percent of all trips are taken by foot and 1 percent by bicycle (Active Living Research, 2016) and 86 percent of all commuters drove personal vehicles to work (McKenzie, 2015).
  • Opportunity: Transitioning from traditional transportation to active transportation can be a successful way to decrease our environmental impacts and increase our physical health.
  • Opportunity: Benefits from this transition can include decreased use of vehicles that rely on fossil fuels and increased physical activity, both of which have a variety of other beneficial impacts.

Current Challenges: Physical Health

  • Challenge: According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), only 1 in 5 meet the 2008 Physical Activity guidelines which include 150 minutes of brisk walking or moderate aerobic activity each week (CDC, 2015). This equals only 21 minutes of activity which only 20 percent of Americans get.
  • Opportunity: Utilizing active transportation as a means of transit and a way to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines.
  • Opportunity: Using physical health as a motivator for active transportation by communicating the risks with not meeting physical standards as well as the potential to do so with active transportation.

In communicating sustainability, transit options and the potential health benefits are often overshadowed by topics such as rising sea level and increased storm intensity.

Sustainability is generally applied on a large scale to energy and systems that do not connect the audience on a social and individual level, which creates a gap in connecting transportation opportunities and the environment (Varner, 2013). The public often fails to consider the impact that their own transit has on their physical health or the environments health. This has resulted in the increase in scale of environmental health problems expanding from household to community to regional to global levels (McMichael, 2003), requiring us to reconsider current transportation practices and communicate the benefits of active transportation.

Jackson, Michigan: Project U-Turn

Project U-Turn was an active transportation focused project to address the health concerns in Jackson, Michigan. The obesity rate in the city of just over 33,000 was a good indicator and test case to represent the entire state (30.7% obesity rate), which is among the highest in the country (TenBrink et al., 2009). According to the project, all of Jackson’s residents live within 5 miles of schools, churches, parks, entertainment and shopping (TenBrink et al., 2009). The implementation of safe active transportation routes in the city has resulted in a 63% increase in walking and biking (surveyed one year after the initial study) (TenBrink et al., 2009). It has also resulted in positive environmental changes in the community from decreased vehicle use (TenBrink et al., 2009).

  • The city’s Fitness Council took the responsibility of promoting the benefits of increased active transportation. The most successful form of communication for them was community events and an annual “Smart Commute Day” which encouraged the use of the new infrastructure for commuting (TenBrink et al., 2009).

Each year, the Active Transportation Program (ATP), spends about $120 million dollars for bike and pedestrian projects across California. These programs allow cities, counties, transit agencies and other public agencies receive grants to build bicycle/pedestrian paths, install bike racks, and other projects that make walking or biking easier, safer and more convenient. Benefits from these projects include decreased traffic congestion, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and increased physical activity (MTS, 2016).

  • Limiting fossil fuel consumption and increased physical wellness, are linked in a variety of ways. Communicating these linkages can ensure a healthier future for the public as well as the environment.
  • Increased active transportation infrastructure can result in decreased individual carbon footprints as well as increase physical wellness (Winters, 2010). Using active transportation infrastructure as a link to health and sustainability can be a successful method of communication because of how crucial transportation is to the public on a daily basis.

Using communication to better present the benefits of active transportation to sustainability and physical health is essential.

  • Educate the public. As noted in the Jackson, MI study, the most effective form of communication was educational community days and events about the benefits of active transportation.
  • Engage the audience. engaging the audience allows for connecting on a more personal level. Creating an active community encourages healthier practices.
  • Develop a story that connects with the audience. This allows for a more powerful effect on the perception that the audience has creating the opportunity for decision makers to make an impace
  • When the data moves from its science form to non science based audiences, stories and anecdotes become more important and influential.

Effective Communication can:

“influence people's opinions, behavior, and policy when the weight of the evidence clearly shows that some choices has consequences for public health, public safety, and other social concerns” (NAS, 2016).

Presentation by Peter Weafer


Active Living Research (2016). Moving Toward Active Transportation: How Policies Can Encourage Walking and Bicycling. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Industries at a Glance: Transportation and Warehousing (2017). from

Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2015). Transportation Health Impact Assessment Toolkit. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from

Keen, A, (2008). Built Environment & Active Transportation. “The Benefits of Active Transportation” Physical Activity Strategy. Ed. Andrea Keen. Retrieved on February 22, 2017 from

McKenzie, B. (2015). Who Drives to Work? Commuting by Automobile in the U.S. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from

McMichael, A. J. (2003). ​Climate change and human health: risks and responses. Geneva: World Health Organization. From​

Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTS) (2016). Active Transportation Program. Retrieved from

National Academy of Sciences (2016). Ch. 1 Communicating Science Effectively / Using science to improve science communication. Retrieved February 8, 2017, from

TenBrink, D. S., McMunn, R., & Panken, S. (2009). Project U-Turn: increasing active transportation in Jackson, Michigan. American journal of preventive medicine, from

Varner, J. (2014); Scientific Outreach: Toward Effective Public Engagement with Biological Science. BioScience 2014

Von Storch, H., & Stehr, N. (2006). Anthropogenic Climate Change: A Reason for Concern since the 18th Century and Earlier. Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography, 88(2), 107-113. Retrieved from

Winters, M., Brauer, M., Setton, E. M., & Teschke, K. (2010). Built Environment Influences on Healthy Transportation Choices: Bicycling versus Driving. Journal of Urban Health : Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, from

*All photos are owned by author of this presentation.

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