For the first time, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) will team up with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston (UTHealth), for a new project funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The five-year project will look at how the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s (METRO’s) light rail transit (LRT) line extensions affect the physical activity and travel behavior of adults in Houston. Researchers are particularly interested in understanding this effect in the low-income, ethnically diverse adult population residing along the new LRT lines.
“Use of public transit requires some degree of activity to travel to and from the stops. This makes the new transit lines a natural candidate to examine individuals’ behavior who live nearby,” says Ipek N. Sener, Ph.D., associate transportation researcher and project lead for TTI.
“As an alternative mode of transportation, public transit has been continually studied in response to the adverse effects of motorized travel such as traffic congestion and environmental pollution; however, this study tells another side of the story in the context of a natural experiment,” Sener explains. “Although regular transit use has been linked to greater levels of physical activity and lower body weight, no study has adequately examined the effect of transit use on people’s physical activity and travel behaviors, especially the dynamically changing behavior over time.”
Sener says this study will be the most comprehensive of its kind to date.
Houston provides a unique environment for the study – despite being the fourth largest city in the United States, it is more car dependent, and inhabitants rely less on transit when compared to other cities of its size. Houston METRO aims at playing an important role in changing this setting, however. Currently, the Main Street/Red Line has an average of daily boarding of 37,000. The overall LRT system is set to be expanded with three new lines — following the opening of the northbound red line in December 2013, the east end and southeast lines are expected to open in late 2014.
The neighborhoods surrounding the new lines have lower average incomes compared to Harris County and Texas as a whole. Additionally, they have a much higher racial minority population than the county and state.
“It is one of the key aspects of our study that we will examine an area of Houston with a special population group that is minority, lower income and medically underserved,” says Sener. “These demographic characteristics have been identified as important risk factors for sedentary life styles and obesity, which may also result in many chronic diseases; however, this population group is still understudied for regular physical activity.”
Researchers will collect baseline data before the LRT lines open, and then again once a year for the next three years. All participants in the study will document their behavior, as well as their perceptions and attitudes, with travel diaries and questionnaires. A subgroup of participants will also wear accelerometers for one week to provide a direct measure of physical activity.
“It is in our interest to improve people’s lives and inform future transportation policy decisions through objective research and analysis. We believe that our results will greatly improve our understanding of the subject and provide important insights and guidance for policy makers who desire to incorporate health considerations into the planning and construction of transportation systems,” says Sener.
The principal investigators on the project are Harold W. Kohl III, Ph.D., from UTHealth and Ipek N. Sener, Ph.D., from TTI.