Tunnel Vision

How NYC's Subway Showdown Could Affect Your Health

Could a subway shutdown actually make New Yorkers healthier? It's complicated.
October 4, 2017, 9:00pm
Photo by Stephen Chernin via Getty

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Upward of 6 million people pack onto the subway in New York City each and every day. And for a number of New Yorkers who may not have enough time (or money) to go to the gym every day, that commute is a primary source of exercise, whether it's walking to the subway station, running up and down stairs, squeezing up next to the door, or leaping to catch the next train. It may not be intentional, but it is a reality. (Yes, there are even workout tips for NYC commutes available online.)

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But the commute is much more than that. How long it takes you to get to work or school has serious implications for your mental health, employment status, productivity, and personal relationships—just to name a few. A recent report, which VICE covered, showed that declining subway service had a negative impact on all of these categories, with overwhelming numbers of respondents saying their commute is often a point of pain and frustration in their daily lives. And in 2019, the L train shutdown will be, perhaps, the largest case study so far of what a subway line, or lack thereof, can mean for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.

To understand that bigger picture, VICE spoke with Nancy M. Wells, a professor and environmental psychologist at Cornell University who studies people's relationship to the built environment. Earlier this year, Professor Wells and her class, along with the Van Alen Institute, an NYC-based urban design firm, released what's known as a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) for the L train shutdown, analyzing the often-unrecognized "pathways," or the means by which a crisis or scenario like this can affect public health.

Here's what she had to say.

VICE: So what was the purpose of the HIA you and your class conducted?
Nancy: It's this idea that, whatever the sector is—transportation, healthcare, whatever—health itself is not necessarily on the forefront of people's thinking. So trying to anticipate the unanticipated consequences, in terms of health, and think about those disenfranchised populations. Other people do different kinds of cost-benefit analyses with often a more economic lens. But health impact itself is a pretty big burden, in terms of exactly how it's done, or what kind of topics are examined. It's a specific thing, with a pretty specific intention, in terms of anticipating these health implications, and then making recommendations with the goal of trying to exert, and amplify, positive health potential benefits.

We went [to Brooklyn] for a couple of days and were able to attend one of the MTA's workshops. So we got a little bit of a sense of one of those public workshops that they had. We also held our own stakeholder workshops to try to have people think specifically about the health implications of these changes and how it'd affect their behaviors and feelings about various things. And we rode on the L train, just to get some sense of what it is on the ground, and what people there are feeling.

Before we get into possible health benefits, let's start with the negative: What are some of the health risks that the L train shutdown poses?
We tried to look at a pretty varied range of health risks, but one thing is really thinking about the people who are older adults, or those with mobility limitations. Maybe they use the subway, but trying to travel further without the subway is a challenge. That's one kind of health risk for a certain type of population. And certainly, the areas of Brooklyn that are really dependent on the train includes some of the lower-income communities.

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Another example might be, if you have a longer commute and a more stressful commute, what are the implications for when you get to your home? And your ability to cook a good meal for your kids, or be patient with your kids? There's this notion of carry-over effects that can go from the commute to the workplace, or from the commute to the home environment. It could be on productivity, but also family dynamics and home environments, with more anxiety and stress.

Then there's the risk of overcrowding on sidewalks as a result of the shutdown. One thing that can happen when people feel crowded is that they sort of socially withdraw as a way to control their social interactions. In a way, that could undermine the sense of community and people socializing. Maybe even altruism: In a crowded situation, people might be less likely to be helpful to each other. So trying to pay attention to how to mitigate that is important.

What were some of the recommendations that the report put forward to offset these risks as much as possible?
One of the things we talked about was trying to use technology to help people be informed about what their options are. And I think, in general, communicating with the public—which is kind of an obvious thing, but critical—by giving them lots of forewarnings about what's happening, and what their options are, so people can have this mental map of what's going to be coming up, and plan for it. Even in the day-to-day, if there are apps and things that help you know, for example, 'Okay, if they're going to have more ferries, when are the ferries coming?' 'What are the biking options?' So just helping through online resources, as well as making new apps, to sort of navigate.

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Another thing that came up in a couple of different domains is this idea of trying to leverage the natural environment. There's evidence that nature, and elements of nature, can help to buffer the impact of stressors that we experience. It's a simple thing, but trying to incorporate vegetation in certain areas, so there's a little dose of nature built into people's days, which might help to mitigate that impact of stress a bit. Another thing is the notion that the MTA can communicate with employers with a message to say, it'd be great if they can be more flexible in terms of allowing more staggered work hours, or telecommuting.

Another thing was trying to pay attention to having healthy food options in these neighborhoods that are going to be most affected. Thinking, again, about if people are spending more time and more money on transportation, they'll be strapped, both in terms of time and money, to spend on healthy food. So making it a little bit easier to bring home healthy food to your family, and just take the edge off a little bit, in terms of these cumulative stressors.

In that sense, what are the possible health benefits that could come from the L train shutdown?
It's interesting. I think that, particularly, if there's more attention paid to the kind of infrastructure that helps people to find healthier commuting options, like biking and walking and that sort of thing—both the infrastructure and the communication to let people know where it is, and what to do—then it could have the potential for some percentage of the population to actually shift to something that is healthier. And maybe they really like it. Maybe that new habit will stick with them after. It's hard to say what percent of the population that would work for, or would be appealing for, but it could be a cool thing for some people. I think that's the the main thing.

Not to understate the frustration or the difficulty that this whole thing will present, but it could be leveraged into a pretty good opportunity in that way, and could really have an upside. If it could be done well, and there really is the right infrastructure; that combination of the education along with the infrastructure could be great.

So what's the response been from the MTA?
None, not that I know of. The Van Alen Institute has been our contact, but I don't think they've heard anything back. I think they were open to it, but we never really had direct connection.