Linking Heath & Active Transportation
Q & A with Commissioner Gretchen Musicant, Minneapolis Health Department
By Joan Pasiuk, Program Director, and Jennifer Harmening Thiede, Communications Associate
In early 2013, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation presented to the City of Minneapolis a Roadmaps to Health Prize. This national award recognizes the City's commitment and innovative approach to building a healthy community, which includes collective efforts to increase bicycling and walking. We recently sat down with Gretchen Musicant, Commissioner of the Minneapolis Health Department (MHD), to discuss this connection between health and transportation options.
Gretchen Musicant, Commissioner of the Minneapolis Health Department. (Photo credit: Bike Walk Twin Cities.)
From a public health perspective, what are some of the specific linkages between transportation and health?
GM: We primarily look at transportation through the eyes of physical activity and the opportunity for people to be physically active during the day. The research says, if you can be active during the day doing your normal things, you are more likely to do that on a regular basis. Transportation also relates to access to goods and services. We want to look at: Are there interesting destinations for people within bikeable distances? Are they able to get to things that matter to them? Are they able to get to schools, workplaces, grocery stores?
Why is the City of Minneapolis committed to active transportation?
GM: We place high priority on healthy living, so healthy transportation fits within that goal. One of our key objectives is to make healthy choices the easy choice. Our attention to [active] transportation is with that in mind--to make it right there and easy for you. Fighting the obesity epidemic is also one of our key challenges. Increasing physical activity--and active transportation--is a key component of doing that.
Are there specific goals that you've set, or that the City has set, to achieve active transportation?
GM: We do have a number of data tracking methods and goal setting. One of them is our set of sustainability indicators. We talk about bicycling use as one of our sustainability indicators. We also look at proximity of grocery stores. So, when I talk about places that are walkable or bikeable, that's another indicator that relates to transportation.
How have public investments in walking and bicycling in Minneapolis made an impact on health to date?
GM: We have worked quite a bit in North Minneapolis, which did not have the infrastructure and amenities, and also did not have a strong culture of biking, as we might have found in other parts of the city. We worked with Nice Ride to bring kiosks into North Minneapolis. We helped develop a bike/walk center [called Venture North]-a store that would repair bikes and make bikes available. We worked with a PR firm [in collaboration with TLC/BWTC] to get a message out that people in North Minneapolis, yes, do use bikes. We haven't been able to study all of those things. We do know that, when we brought the Nice Ride kiosks up to North Minneapolis, people were subscribing, were signing up. And Nice Ride is committed to keeping those kiosks in North Minneapolis. We have made a sustainable change that is being adopted.
What health outcomes related to active transportation will MHD be working on over the next two years?
GM: Equity is one of our dominant themes as we think about planning: How do we assure equity in the distribution of opportunities and amenities? And, beyond that, how do we continue to integrate physical activity and transportation? Our overall average as a city in terms of obesity is not bad. But we have very significant disparities within that measure.
Commissioner Musicant (third
from left) was on hand when the City of Minneapolis accepted a Roadmaps to
Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Musicant.)
How do you respond to those who question the value of using public funds to make bicycling and walking easier and safer?
GM: It is really important to recognize that there were decades of policy decisions and financial investments that were car centric. There were decades of policies that led us to the obesity epidemic we now have. We really do need to invest resources and time and pay attention to policies in order to reverse that trend. Or we will all suffer the consequences because it increases health care costs and affects productivity and wellbeing.
Minneapolis is already widely recognized as a bike-friendly city. What would help to create a tipping point for walking as transportation?
GM: I think it has to do with the density of amenities and destinations. In my neighborhood, on a weekend, I can pretty easily not use my car and still get all the things done that I want to do. That is not true in every neighborhood. We need to think about that. Some transit corridors where we are building more density will not only encourage people to use transit but also to walk in those areas because there will be amenities concentrated together. We are starting to normalize walking through Safe Routes to School and even with programs like the one at Northrop [Elementary School]. There, kids go to school on buses predominantly, but, on a certain day of every week, they stop six blocks from school and then they walk those six blocks together. It's a group activity. It's fun. By integrating those walking experiences, as children grow up, they'll expect more walking as a normal thing. Some communities and neighborhoods are less safe to walk in than others. We really need to pay attention to that as well. Some of that has to do with addressing issues like violence, but other things can be done with design and creating safe-feeling environments.
Health disparities are often tied to economic and social inequities. How does this factor in to the MHD's efforts to reduce health disparities over the short and long term?
GM: This is the way we think about the work we do. It factors in--it's woven in--to everything we think about when we try to accomplish change in our communities. Even in places where we see documented social inequities, we also see strengths and resilience. Culture is a tremendous source of strength for many in Minneapolis. Part of our work needs to be, and has been, trying to connect with those cultural strengths and to talk about these ideas in ways that resonate.
Any other thoughts about the health arguments for making infrastructure, planning, and programmatic investments to advance bikeability and walkability?
GM: When I think about new developments like the Vikings stadium or large-scale downtown developments, I think we need to have an eye toward issues of walkability and bikeability with those big investment opportunities because they don't come along all the time. It is really important to have some influence on their contribution to this issue because they will have a long-term impact.
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