Improving Hamilton's transit system will be integral to improving the overall health of people in the city in the coming years, experts say.

"Strengthening our public transit system has a great city-wide benefit," said Dr. Ninh Tran, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health. "It's an overall public health impact."

Tran says those improvements include augmenting access to public transit and getting more people to use the system regularly, along with more incentives to walk and bike.

And a little goes a long way. Tran says that regular transit use (excluding biking) gets people walking an additional 8.3 minutes a day compared to non-transit users.

That might not seem like much, but it's a cumulative effect, he says, that quickly adds to the minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

tran-300

Dr. Ninh Tran, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health, says strengthening Hamilton's public transit system would have a city-wide benefit. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Boosting the amount of regular exercise people get is important, because 63 per cent of Canadians are still not active enough, according to a report from Transport Canada. "Using active and sustainable modes of transportation to and from daily destinations can help meet that daily requirement," the report reads.

According to information Tran presented to city council last month, 74 per cent of adults in Hamilton and surrounding regions are overweight or obese.

He added that only seven per cent of Canadian young people and 15 per cent of adults are meeting the physical activity guidelines set by the PHAC.

Aging population

Hamilton's rapidly aging population is also a big concern. According to the latest census numbers from Statistics Canada, the elderly represent 16 per cent of Hamilton's metropolitan population, which is higher than the national average.

That number won't only have an impact on the health care system, it will also affect public transit, Transport Canada says. According to data from "The Links between Public Health and Sustainable and Active Transportation" report, the elderly use transit more than any other age group, and public transit trips also increase dramatically with age.

'We need to find ways to take a preventative approach to public health over a reactive one.'—Don Hull, Hamilton's director of transit

"In general, regardless of research, most municipalities have found seniors are less likely to be driving," Tran said. "They're either relying on public transit, walking, or someone else is driving them."

So with those numbers rising, seniors will be taking to public transit more and more — and Tran says that if Hamilton doesn't have a strong system, the city is effectively reducing the quality of life for that part of the community.

"Seniors have a tremendous ability to contribute back to the community, but they need to be able to get places."

Tran also works part-time as a family physician, and sees many seniors in his practice. "And, as you would expect, they tend to need health care more than non-seniors," he said.

Many of those seniors are taking buses to the office, Tran says, and sometimes make their decisions as to what clinics they visit based on the availability of transit rather than what care is best for them.

"Sometimes they'll end up picking a place with a bigger wait time or one that isn't best for them just based on the fact that they can get there," he said, adding that this is definitely is not helping with their overall health.

Changing the system

Don Hull, Hamilton's director of transportation, says the city is becoming more aware that transportation service delivery and good public health are co-dependent.

Hull says an effective public transit network that includes a reliable, far-reaching bus network can help to abate the rising costs of health care in an aging city.

"Just walking a kilometre a day back and forth to a bus stop is enough to mitigate the climbing rate of diabetes," Hull said.

According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes can cut their risk 58 per cent with 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise and by losing five to seven per cent of their body weight. For people 60 and over (a rising demographic in Hamilton) the risk was cut by almost 71 per cent.

"There really is a true measure and linkage between active transportation and the escalating costs of public health," Hull said. "It's kind of a revelation for us."

The city is planning major policy changes in the coming years to push ridership up on HSR buses as well as implementing a new bikeshare program, which would in turn would help alleviate some of these health issues, Hull said.

"We need to find ways to take a preventative approach to public health over a reactive one," Hull said.

"We can be a real, measurable part of the solution of turning that around."