For my current class on management in my public health program at the University of Washington, we are examining the Snohomish County Health District’s strategic plan. Snohomish, just north of Seattle, has nearly 720,000 people. The two top killers in the county are chronic diseases (cancer and heart disease). The county’s health profile largely mirrors the rest of the nation’s—residents are suffering from obesity and being overweight, they rely heavily on personal vehicle use to travel, and their built environment has been created mostly to facilitate personal vehicle use. (There were 449 vehicular deaths in the county from 2002-08; deaths from unintentional injuries rank as 4th leading killer in the county.)
In short, the county is premised on sprawl development, which encouraged real-estate speculation, all collapsing with a bang when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Such sprawl, subsidized by taxpayer funded infrastructure (i.e., roads to serve the automobile) and extremely cheaply priced energy (gasoline), of course is one of the major factors leading to this nation’s ever-worsening health indicators, such as a rise in type 2 diabetes and bulging waist lines.
By comparison, Denmark, where I visited for more than a month in 2000, has a robust public health system and a healthier population than the United States’, and it spends about half per capita on health care than the extremely inefficient U.S. system. The country has strict land use and planning regulations, and nationally and locally they have a heavily subsidized public transportation system that enables residents to commute to work and their homes by bike, bus, and light rail.
I lived in Riis Skov, just north of Aarhus, the country’s second largest city. Aarhus, even back in 2000, had an incredibly well-designed multi-modal transportation system that encouraged “active transportation” (biking, walking). Today, one can find free bikes in the city. The downtown area, site of the historic cathedral and main square, by the port, was pedestrian only. Bike paths in all directions from the city were designated in blue painted paths on the streets and with bike charettes or with clear white lines. People rode their low-tech, three-speed bikes everywhere, even in the rain (many did not use bike helmets, interestingly).
Here in Seattle, where I live, we have nowhere near as safe or robust a multi-modal transportation system. There are no blue-painted bike lanes. We have bike lanes painted onto dangerous busy streets, and we lack the sophistication in planning that Aarhus had achieved years before Seattle could build a light rail. We have a lot to learn from our Danish friends. Go Aarhus, go Denmark!