Use M-1 Rail to improve public health for everyone

Bengt Arnetz

After years of planning, the M-1 Rail is creeping up on us. In about 18 months, the 3.3-mile stretch of Woodward from downtown to Grand Boulevard will have a new piece of infrastructure that will transform the surrounding area. This transformation is potentially positive. But that does not mean that the positive effects will reach everyone.

The new creative and professional classes flocking Woodward from downtown to the New Center area will certainly benefit. An emerging body of research points to lower body-mass ratios, more physical exercise, and improved environmental conditions as benefiting people who live close to well-run public transportation systems. Access to education, income, and, by extension, prime locations along Woodward leave the creative and professional classes well positioned to benefit from the kinds of advantages that reliable public transportation can provide: access to healthful food, entertainment, cultural amenities, jobs downtown and at major employers, safer neighborhoods, stronger social relations, a cleaner environment, and possibly more retail as the area becomes populated. These benefits point to a larger truth: the M-1 Rail can lead to a healthier lifestyle and improved well-being.

But there are no guarantees that the benefits of the M-1 Rail will reach extant underserved and vulnerable populations along its length, the very populations that can potentially benefit the most from its presence. Already plagued with obesity, limited physical activity, asthma, and low homeownership rates, these populations are in danger of being locked out of the benefits of the M-1 Rail if they are pushed away from Woodward. Renters, older residents, and low-income families are especially vulnerable.

These facts point to the link between equity and public health, a persistent and well-known problem in many U.S. cities. There are no easy solutions, but research has shown time and again that a handful of policies can help.

We cannot tell precisely which policies or combination of policies will help. Indeed, these should emerge through consultative processes and research. We suspect that solutions will be related to policies of inclusion and urban design, particularly policies that:

■ pull neighborhoods together.

■ provide jobs for people who already live in the city.

■ provide opportunities for physical activities.

■ assure the availability of affordable housing.

■ and provide access to all of the amenities that the M-1 Rail will make available.

The latter set of policies is what researchers refer to as placed-based programs. These can have more sustained influences on public health than individual-based interventions: One only need think about the effect of land-use zoning that isolates noxious exposures or street codes that improve traffic safety to see the huge public health implications of place-based programs.

The M-1 Rail will likely have positive health outcomes. The challenge now is to design public policy interventions to harness these outcomes so that they benefit underserved and vulnerable populations that already live along its route.

Rayman Mohamed is an associate professor in Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Bengt Arnetz is chairman of Michigan State University’s Department of Family Medicine.