Area scientists are about to investigate whether some Houstonians have an unlikely alternative to joining health clubs or running marathons: riding trains.
Now that Metro's North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse — figuratively, not literally — of the light rail line extension's impact on physical activity.
"This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward," said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center's School of Public Health and the study's principal investigator. "We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents."
Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn't seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.
If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations — places to work, shop, worship — that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.
There is no shortage of data showing that moderate physical activity is beneficial for health, which is why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes brisk walking as a way to get the recommended daily 22 minutes. Previous studies have found that people who use public transportation get most of that amount walking to and from starting points and destinations — 19 minutes, or three times the amount of non-users — but that research typically involved buses in cities where mass transit is popular.
Transit foe dismissive
Metro is hoping to change Houston's culture with the 5.3 miles of light rail that the Red Line added to the north; then, late next year, with additional Green and Purple lines to the east and southeast, respectively. Houston's rail line will then finally become a rail system.
The UT-A&M study is applauded by Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who represents the area the Red Line extension serves and staunchly supported it. He says that "if the study demonstrates a public health benefit, that will show we're getting more bang for our buck."
"I'm not saying it's a panacea," said Gonzalez. "But if the study shows people are getting a workout just walking to the station, that has to be a positive thing."
Such an argument is dismissed by Wendell Cox, principal of the public policy firm Demographia and frequent critic of mass transportation projects. He said mass transit should be judged based on whether it is a cost-effective way to reduce travel time, not on their possible health benefits.
"Otherwise, you could just take that money and buy people health club memberships," said Cox.
Kohl responded that the study's not about whether mass transit is a good use of tax dollars. He said it's about the scientific question of whether a mass transportation project already going forward can improve health. He said it could find that people don't use the system much, or are dropped off at stations instead of walking to them.
The team plans to follow 1,800 people near all three lines over the next four years. The participants, split into a large group of residents who live within a half mile of the Red Line and a smaller control group who live both within and outside that radius, will be asked to document their daily physical activity with travel diaries and questionnaire responses. One thousand will also wear accelerometers for a week.