Health Impacts by Transit Plans

McMaster University


Summary of McMaster University’s Health Forum survey of existing literature, Planning Mass-Transit Projects (Dec. 2020)

Authors: Michael G. Wilson, PhD, Assistant Director, Forum+, and AssistantProfessor, McMaster University

Kerry A. Waddell, M.Sc., PhD student, Technical Focus Point, RISE (Rapid Improvement Support and Exchange), McMaster University

Full version can be reviewed here.

In general:

• Any mass transit project will have positive health impacts, especially pollution reduction, increasing physical activity, and increasing equity for non-drivers

• However, most projects proceed without comparing alternative means of providing mass transit, in particular, without evaluating public and community health pros and cons of burying a line vs. building it along the ground.

• Evaluation tools exist that could be deployed to compare alternatives, e.g. ‘Integrated Transport and Health Impact Model’ and ‘Healthy Development Measurement Tool’

The McMaster team reviewed all existing independent published studies of the health impact of transit projects and found very little directly bearing on the question of over-ground vs. buried lines – except a 2004 study by the International Tunnelling Association [likely biased in favour of underground lines]. But the available studies generally agree on the factors that should be taken into consideration in choosing to bury a line or not:

• Key finding: when public health as well as transportation experts jointlymake decisions about where/how to build a transit line, the results are better for communities, but this rarely happensWhen comparing costs, future operating costs need considering, not just capital costsStations over-ground often have negative aesthetic and other impacts on immediate area

• The increased noise of over-ground transit is not necessarily mitigated by barriers, and new barriers can create new problems especially in dense urban areas (eg. dividing communities)

• Travel time comparisons produced by transportation experts need to be weighed against local impacts (noise, pollution, and especially loss of green space)

• Green space loss has many indirect as well as direct negative impacts on public health, e.g. urban areas with more green spaces see more locals walking, and are correlated with lower urban disorder. This is strictly on a public health basis, that is, over and above the direct environmental impact of loss of green space and vegetation.

• Context is crucial in assessing transit plans – dense urban areas will be impacted differently than low-density areas