Trading Cars for Bikes: 1 Way Cities Are Improving Health
COVID-19’s disruption of day-to-day living uncovered valuable insights into what people need and want from the cities they call home.
These needs became quickly apparent: a more community-focused approach to communications; access to nutritious food; a responsive social safety net; and—for a long list of traditionally car-focused cities like Mexico City—walkable and cycle-friendly neighborhoods. Out of the largest public health crisis in a century came a greater sense that public health should be part of the built environment.
Over the last 25 years, Mexico has been faced with the daunting challenge of reducing road deaths, with annual casualties averaging 15,000 roadway deaths per year. Roadways had traditionally catered more to cars than pedestrians, leaving fewer alternatives to navigate the nation’s capital. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum sought to change this by adopting a citywide road safety action plan in 2021. This program launched an emerging bike path on Insurgentes Avenue, the most important North-South corridor in the capital, facilitating a 275% increase in cyclists. This year, Mexico City aims to build an additional 40 kilometers (25 miles) of cycling infrastructure and schedule bike ride events and cycling trips for schools.
The results of the efforts in Mexico City have been staggering, leading to an economic revitalization of the area, benefiting over 117,000 residents, connecting 3municipalities, 23 neighborhoods and converging with 18 cycling infrastructure routes.
Mexico City’s cycling initiatives, implemented as part of the Partnership for Healthy Cities global network of cities, is 1 example among many ambitious city-led efforts. These initiatives seek to reduce preventable deaths from noncommunicable diseases–including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases—and injuries, which together are responsible for 80% of global deaths.
With most of the world’s population now living in urban settings, cities and their leaders are uniquely positioned to lead the way and implement policies that significantly reduce exposure to risk factors, by encouraging physical activity and providing access to affordable, healthy food. City leaders can address the social determinants of health because many of the decisions that they make have a direct effect on the population, including as they relate to transportation, public services, and housing.
Networks like the Partnership for Healthy Cities, founded in 2017 and now spanning 70 cities globally, have been advancing projects and pursuing stronger public health policies in numerous areas addressing NCDs and injuries. On March 15, the first-ever Partnership for Healthy Cities Summit recognized Mexico City and 4 other cities for their exemplary work to improve the health of their residents:
- In Vancouver, Canada, city officials are working with urban Indigenous communities to make health data on NCDs more accessible, engaging, and relevant to community partners.
- Montevideo, Uruguay, leaders have focused its food policy efforts on incentivizing healthy foods with strong economic investments and resources.
- Athens, Greece, city officials have made strides in combating their overdose epidemic by expanding the municipality’s naloxone provision among government agencies and health care professionals.
- Bengaluru, India, municipal leaders have implemented tobacco control measures, such as an increased display of “no smoking” signage and over 100 enforcement drives by trained enforcement officers, with the support of the Bengaluru Development Minister. The city reduced smoking in public places by 5.2% between 2017 and 2021 and improved compliance with existing mandates prohibiting smoke in public spaces.
These efforts can serve as models for other cities to come up with creative, scalable solutions.
As we look beyond the pandemic, city leaders must keep public health high on their agendas to help improve lives and reduce the risk factors that will make individuals more vulnerable if we face another global health crisis.
Kelly Henning, MD, is Public Health Program lead for Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Ariella Rojhani, MPA, is director of the Partnership for Healthy Cities.
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