The experience of a global pandemic has changed many of our daily activities and routines. For now, kids across the country are doing online school, many people are working from home, and those going to work do so with the added risk of exposure to COVID-19. There have been significant changes in the places we go and how we get there. In Utah, the average weekday traffic volume on the freeway has decreased by 30-45%. Mobility around retail, transit stations, and workplaces are all down about 40%, while visits to parks are up by 16%.
Although many of these changes are temporary, our current situation gives us the unique opportunity to look at Utah’s Transportation Vision in a new way. In times of crisis, what does good health mean to Utahns? While avoiding exposure to COVID-19 may be a top health concern, Utahns have shown that they see the value and necessity of addressing their physical and mental health. However, with gyms and organized recreational opportunities closed, access to outdoor recreational opportunities is essential. A recent Salt Lake Tribune article highlighted the problem of overcrowding at trails and trailheads, particularly along the Wasatch Front. Across the nation, communities are adapting to changing needs as a result of COVID-19 and trying to address concerns related to opportunities for physical activity. As Utahns are looking for safe and accessible places to be active, a new and unique group of partners came together to offer a timely solution: the Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Initiative. Because of decreased traffic volumes and increased demand for safe walking and biking, Salt Lake City Transportation, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) Region Two, UDOT TravelWise/Move Utah, Get Healthy Utah, Utah Department of Health, Utah Transit Authority, the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, and Bike Utah have come together to “launch data-driven temporary lane reallocations on local and state roadways to provide pedestrians, bicyclists, and all residents more access to public space.” We believe that as government and private organizations coming together in this moment of crisis, we can help maximize the utilization of public roadways and resources while making it easier for residents to remain physically active and mentally healthy in safe and appropriate ways.
This initiative also addresses Utah’s Transportation Vision outcomes of better mobility and connected communities. It is essential to see these outcomes as opportunities to address equity. As unemployment continues to rise and transit service is reduced, this initiative can provide an alternate way of safely getting to essential destinations such as workplaces, grocery stores and restaurants, and medical facilities. Access to public space can also help ensure physical and emotional well-being for all residents, especially those with limited indoor and private outdoor space. Critically, “our partners have collectively agreed to pursue projects that intentionally link socially and economically diverse neighborhoods so people can easily get to essential services and resources.”
While these changes will be temporary, the issues addressed are not new and are not going away. Utahns will continue to need safe and accessible places to be physically active. Where you live, work, and play significantly impacts your health outcomes and disparities exist throughout Utah and the nation. More than half of the adults in the US are living with a chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. New research shows that of people with COVID-19 who are sick enough to be hospitalized, 89% had at least one chronic condition. Increasing physical activity levels reduces the risk of chronic disease and has a number of other health benefits including supporting mental health. Improved active transportation, which is achieved through safe walking and biking, is an essential part of improving physical activity in communities.
Get Healthy Utah is proud to partner on the Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Initiative and we look forward to continuing to work together to improve good health, better mobility, and connected communities throughout Utah.
Sarah Hodson, MS, Executive Director, Get Healthy Utah