Dana Careless
Clinical Operations Manager for Health Promotion

Nur Atiqa Asri
Project Analyst
Center for Active Design

“Walk it off.” How many times have you heard someone say that to a person who needs to blow off some steam? We have heard that getting some fresh air and exercising can be a great way to relieve stress.  But are our cities designed to encourage this? And if they’re not, what does this mean about our stress levels and emotional well-being?

Nur Atiqa Asri, from the Center for Active Design, tackles this head on as she explores what it means to “actively commute” to work and how this shift can dramatically improve our physical and mental well-being. Check out her blog contribution below:

As the national average daily commute times continue to rise in the US, workers like you and I are now reportedly spending over 50 minutes getting to and from work every day–mostly alone in a car. Although Philadelphia has made efforts to increase its downtown population through new housing stock and revitalized downtown services, the majority of its workforce continues to commute from neighborhoods outside the city center, and even outside the metropolitan area.

A recent study highlights the various impacts that such long and lonely commutes have on psychological health, including “feelings of worthlessness and unhappiness”. If you drive to work, then it’s very likely you’ve felt increased anxiety from being stuck in traffic. Researchers have observed a negative association between time spent driving to work and overall wellbeing. When people switched from driving to active commuting (trips made by foot, bicycle, and transit), their wellbeing improved. But how exactly does active commuting improve health and wellbeing?

By actively commuting, we are able to reduce our total sedentary time and we are also able to achieve the CDC-recommended weekly gross energy expenditures. If you walk 22 minutes or cycle for 11 minutes to and from work every day, you are meeting the energy expenditure required to reduce all-cause and cardiovascular-related mortality. Also, you are reducing personal risk for depression, making a strong case for improving psychological wellbeing through active commuting. 

The non-passive nature of driving which requires us to constantly concentrate on the road also leads to stress. As many of you may well know, when you’re stuck in traffic, you often find yourselves socially isolated and bored in the car. Instead, by simply riding a bus or train to work, we give ourselves more time to relax, read, and in some instances, even socialize. Incorporating an active commute into our daily routine relieves us of anxiety and stress and further improves our cognitive performance, particularly in mental processes such as thinking, understanding, and remembering. Given the overwhelming psychological and cognitive benefits from active commuting, it is certainly time for our built environment to support the switch to active transportation.

In New York, Queens Plaza has successfully promoted this mode shift. The site began as a large surface parking lot, and over time was transformed into a public plaza with pathways for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of the elevated N-line subway station. The plaza, a winner at the Center for Active Design’s 2015 Excellence Awards, also functions as a key community social space with generous amounts of public art and natural landscaping. The visual aesthetic of the indigenous plants in the plaza provides commuters with a less stressful traffic environment while also enabling them to connect with nature and people en route to their various destinations. Remarkably, within the first two years of its opening, Queens Plaza doubled the rates of walking and increased bicycle traffic by 12% in the area. Neighborhood environments, it seems, can greatly contribute to the number of active commuters in a city. 

In Philadelphia, SEPTA has been making efforts to create seamless travel options for its riders across the service region by improving infrastructure with new turnstiles and fare kiosks, and overhauling its fare payment programs to include reloadable fare cards. Such initiatives encourage commuters in the region to opt out of driving to work and switch to simpler, more active commuting options.

Many people are just beginning to factor in the impacts of a daily commute on personal health. It’s time to pay attention to our collective psychological, and physiological wellbeing, and begin implementing design and development strategies that make active commuting options more attractive, convenient, and reliable. Let’s do what we can to turn that lonely car commute into a sociable and active one!

Additional Tools and Resources:
The Active Design Guidelines published by the City of New York offers numerous design strategies for neighborhoods, streets and buildings to encourage active transportation, including developing continuous bicycle networks, designing pedestrian-friendly streets with high connectivity to public transit, and introducing traffic- calming features to streets through landscaping, lighting, and benches.

The Building Healthy Places Toolkit outlines practical, evidence-based recommendations that the development community can use to promote health at the building or project scale.

–Contributed by Dana Careless, Clinical Operations Manager for Health Promotion at DBHIDS in collaboration with Nur Atiqa Asri, Project Analyst at the Center for Active Design.