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Making the connection between health and transportation

Special to the Legal News

Published: June 23, 2015

Say the words health and transportation and two sets of very distinct images are likely to come to mind. But Akron and Summit County officials are working to change this so that the infrastructure decisions that are made actually promote public health.

In May a series of forums got underway in Akron designed to educate residents about the role transportation plays in their overall well-being.

“Health and transportation do intersect,” said Andy Davis, a former city traffic engineer and Akron’s active transportation coordinator at the School of Sport Science and Wellness Education at The University of Akron. “If a community is designed so that it allows people to walk, bike or take public transit, the residents will be able to achieve moderate physical activity. This type of active transportation is linked to lower obesity rates.

“Other countries are way ahead of us in terms of active transportation,” said Davis. “The United States has one of the highest obesity rates and the lowest active transportation rates.”

Paid for by a $10,000 grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the first two forums took place in May at Jennings Middle School Community Learning Center at 227 E. Tallmadge Ave. and the Akron Zoo Komodo Kingdom Café.

The next health and transportation forum is scheduled to take place on July 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Mustard Seed Market & Café on West Market Street in Akron.

The goal of the discussions was to get input from residents as to how their neighborhood sidewalks and local roadways could be changed so they are more pedestrian and biker friendly.

“Akron and Summit are at the cusp of a time of transformation of the built transportation environment which will shape our communities for years to come,” said Davis. “As roadways are rebuilt or resurfaced over the next five to 15 years, there is the opportunity to make changes that include pedestrian and bicycle facilities. The roadways were built during a time when our population was higher and growing and now is a time to ‘rightsize’ and be smarter about how we use the public right of way.”

“We spend too much time in our cars so the question is how can we create infrastructure that allows for safe and reliable commuting on foot, bike or via transit,” said James Hardy, assistant director of community health at Summit County Public Health.

“I see this as part of a broader policy that seeks to understand that every decision we make impacts health in some way or form,” said Hardy. “Health should be the chief concern when public officials make decisions about communities.”

The push to find ways to improve community health is not new.

Back in 1995, the Healthy Connections Network (HCN) was created to respond to key health and social service issues in Akron and Summit County. The nonprofit organization funded and implemented the Access to Care program to link lower income uninsured adults in Summit County with a network of healthcare providers who donated their services.

In 2011 the nonprofit Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron brought together about 70 organizations, ranging from major hospitals and healthcare providers to employers, universities, housing and transportation groups, faith-based entities and others, creating the first-of-its-kind Accountable Care Community. The initiative sought to increase the overall health of the region’s population. It received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the initial focus on helping patients with Type 2 Diabetes to manage their illnesses more effectively.

Last year, a group of Akron-area government, hospital, academic and public health officials, including former Mayor Donald Plusquellic, traveled to Cuba with the goal of learning how to make positive changes to local medical care.

“The reason they chose Cuba was that despite the fact that the country is poor, many of its health outcomes are on par with those of industrialized countries, including the U.S.,” said Marie Curry, Community Legal Aid Services, Inc.’s, managing attorney for the Health, Education, Advocacy and Law Program. “They accomplish this while spending only a small fraction of what we spend on healthcare.”

Now Akron and Summit County officials are striving to develop a Health in All Policies Initiative, in which government agencies work in conjunction to address all aspects of healthcare. James said the concept originated in California and is spreading across the nation.

He said the Institute for Healthcare Improvement has also called for the creation of health charters within communities, whereby officials vow to consider health, air quality, access to nutritious food and built environment when making decisions. 

Summit County partners are working on drafting a health charter as part of the NACCHO grant. 

“We are also developing a model for community engagement,” said Curry, who is one leader of the Health in All Policies Initiative. “We have sought input from almost 600 people. The group includes an intended overrepresentation of African Americans as well as other people of color, from teens to senior citizens, to get broad input on what should be in the health charter.”

During the health and transportation forums, residents were introduced to a number of initiatives that are underway, including Akron’s Safe Routes to School Program (SRTS).

Administered through the Ohio Department of Transportation, the SRTS program seeks to encourage and enable students in grades K-8 to walk or ride their bicycles to school.

Over the past year, Davis has served as the city’s project manager for the development of the SRTS School Travel Plan for the Akron Public School District. Over the next two years, he will be working on implementing program activities throughout the district and will continue to work with the city on obtaining funding for infrastructure projects.

Davis said the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study has also proposed numerous “Road Diets” in Summit and Portage counties in which a four-lane roadway might be converted into one with three car lanes––two through lanes and one center two-way left-turn lane––and a painted bike lane on each side.

“This improves safety for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as drivers,” said Davis.

“We have already performed two road diet projects that have reduced the speed on Copley Road in Akron between Storer Avenue and I-77 and Hilbish Avenue from Triplett Boulevard to East Market Street,” said Davis. “There has been a dramatic improvement in safety.”

Davis said this year the continuation of the Copley Road project (Storer Avenue to Maple Street/Glendale Avenue) is budgeted to restripe four-lane sections into three lanes with bike lanes.

“Albrecht Avenue adjacent to Ritzman Community Learning Center is scheduled for resurfacing this summer and will be restriped with a new three lane plus bike lanes configuration,” Davis said.

“Through a Knight Foundation grant, the route from the Towpath and Bartges Street to Raymond Street to Euclid Avenue will be signed as a connector path to the Akron Zoo. Animal paw prints will also be used on the sidewalk to test this route. In the future protected bike lanes and a bike boulevard may be implemented depending on community acceptability of this route,” he said.

Another forum is tentatively scheduled for July 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Shirley L. McGuire Community Center in Norton and Davis said another is in the works for Tallmadge.

In addition, a seminar on gun violence as a public health crisis was held on April 25, 2015 to create a dialogue about how the problem not only impacts the victim, the person shooting and the family but also neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and the entire community.

 “We also have grants aimed at impacting obesity through community gardening, increasing options for physical activity, worksite wellness, farm-to-community projects, and more that we hope will move the needle,” said James. 

The goal is for the Summit County Health in All Policies group to take all the information gathered from the various public events and use it to draft a health charter.

“The focus on healthcare up until this point has been on access and what can be done clinically,” Curry said. “We want to move the needle forward on the many other determinants that play into community health.”