Texas A&M to study new transit mode’s effects on walking habits

Researchers will evaluate how neighborhoods and transportation systems can promote lifestyle behaviors that reduce chronic disease
September 25, 2018

The high rates of obesity in most American cities call for new public health approaches to obesity prevention and control. A team of Texas A&M researchers will conduct a five-year, $2.6 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about whether a new bus rapid transit (BRT) service in a large, predominantly Hispanic city will affect the physical activity levels of the city’s residents. This study, conducted in El Paso, Texas, will examine the potential health impact of BRT as a promising new form of public transportation that combines the capacity, speed and reliability of rail transit with the flexibility and cost advantage of a conventional bus system. It will also explore benefits and costs of BRT implementation and barriers and facilitators of BRT use.

Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia Ory, PhD, of the Texas A&M School of Public Health, will co-lead the research study with Professor Chanam Lee, PhD, and Associate Professor Wei Li, PhD, of the Texas A&M College of Architecture. The research team will compare the walking frequency of individuals who live within a halfmile of BRT stations opening in late 2018 with that of residents who live elsewhere in the city and do not use BRT. The study team will monitor modes of transportation and physical activities using devices such as accelerometers and wearable Global Positioning System (GPS) units and a travel diary.

The underlying research question is how the neighborhood environment and transportation system can promote lifestyle behaviors that reduce the onset or progression of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. “This complex question calls for expertise from public health, architecture, urban planning and transportation science,” Orysaid. “Fortunately, our team has been working together for some time generating novel conceptual approaches and methods for studying these issues.”

The new BRT will feature more than 20 miles of routes. The high-capacity buses, which run every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes during non-peak hours, have traffic signal-aided priority at intersections.

In a pilot study of 310 survey respondents, researchers examined the physical activity levels among riders and non-riders of El Paso’s existing BRT line. Study results indicated that BRT or regular bus riders reported more minutes of moderate physical activity per week than non-riders.

“Results from the pilot study suggest that the BRT system has a large potential to attract latent demands for transit by offering economical, comfortable, fast and safe services,” Ory said. “It may also lead to more physical activity by system riders,which is good for public health.”

The multiyear NIH-funded study will involve more than 1,200 survey respondents with researchers collecting survey data in the spring of 2018, 2019 and 2021.

“In addition to the strong interdisciplinary team of experts from Texas A&M, this study was made possible thanks to the strong local partnerships we have with the local community including Sun Metro, the University of Texas at El Paso, Paso Del Norte Foundation and Texas A&M Colonias Program,” Leesaid. “We will also evaluate other ‘modifiable’ features in the neighborhood and areas at or near BRT stations to understand what other environmental or technological supports may be helpful in promoting BRT use and physical activity.”

“Working with the Texas Transportation Institute provides insights into the impact of transit-oriented multi-level interventions, including cost subsidies,” Lisaid. “Many U.S. cities are making substantial investments in expanding their public transit systems and promoting transit-oriented developments. Our study results will help cities make better policies to promote healthy and sustainable transportation.”

The interdisciplinary research team consists of researchers from Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, College of Architecture and College of Science; the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; the University of Texas at El Paso; and Paso Del Norte Institute for Healthy Living.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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