Transportation connectivity as a tool for public health in rural communities

This Saturday’s TransportationCamp DC 2017 will feature a broad array of topics. Esther Dyson, executive founder of Way to Wellville, author, and angel investor, will appear in a session about creating more connected cities.

bob-lee-ed-creative-commonsAccess is an important factor in community health, and a well-connected transportation network plays a vital role in enabling that.

Small, rural communities tend to lack the resources, funding, and political will necessary to drive this, meaning, residents are likely lacking travel options to access the services that support a higher quality of life.

Esther Dyson, founder of health research non-profit HICCup, hopes to fill TransportationCampLargerResizedthose gaps with Way to Wellville, a challenge the group is running to improve quality of life in five communities over 10 years by providing support and guidance to health-based improvements that would achieve these goals.

Hailing a connection

Dyson, who expresses a particular interest in ride-hailing services, emphasizes the importance of creating transportation options for residents that link them to health and economic opportunities.

One of her group’s major efforts is to attract ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to the “Wellville Five” communities selected to participate in the challenge: Clatsop County, Oregon; Greater Muskegon, Michigan; Lake County, California; Niagara Falls, New York; and Spartanburg, South Carolina. With such low-density areas, Dyson says the services represent an opportunity to connect spread-out people to healthful lifestyles.

Dyson points out that this could start by using ride-hail companies to connect residents without their cars to healthcare and wellness facilities. Providing convenient access to health infrastructure creates an opportunity for smart, long-term investment in community health by “paying a little bit year-by-year to maintain health rather than paying a huge price to fix something after it goes wrong.”

That said, Dyson says it is difficult to get companies to roll out programs in small communities like the Wellville Five. While private businesses have more incentive to establish services in dense urban areas, there is a “latent capacity” that they overlook in less-dense areas.

Dyson wants to build interest among companies and convince them to work with small communities by emphasizing the long-term economic value of introducing this transportation option. Local initiatives and buy-in would be essential to “jump-start” efforts to attract service providers and overcome their high startup costs.

Should a ride-hailing company establish itself in these communities, Dyson expects that they would release a strong source of latent economic activity, engaging people with cars that need money, and providing access to the community for people without personal vehicles who lack transit options.

Because Way to Wellville is only two years in, it is still too early to measure dramatic progress. However, Dyson ultimately won’t look for success in terms of metrics like blood sugar count. Instead, she expects to see “more kids graduating, more empty hospital beds, and more people engaging in fitness” by having access to the tools and facilities that promote healthy lifestyles. These will become desirable communities to live in, and connectivity will play a decisive role.

Attendees of Transportation Camp 2017 will have an opportunity to discuss with Dyson and other panelists the potential of such services to improve community health: please keep an eye out for the “Ultimate Connected City” session.

Photos: Top, a couple walking (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). Esther Dyson (Bob Lee, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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