Does Better Transportation Translate to Better Health?

By Leslie Charles Coover

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, the majority of the U.S. population was dispersed in rural societies and they lacked modern transportation. Most people were cut off from access to healthcare because of the high cost of travel. For a farmer who had to travel ten miles to take a family member to see a doctor, the travel time could mean a whole day’s lost work (Star). In most areas, according to one Illinois practitioner, “The doctor did not often go more than ten miles from his home” (Bonner 200).

As the transportation infrastructure began to develop, doctors were able to widen their markets by expanding the territory they could cover. “If the railroad did not take physicians all the way to their destination, a carriage might be waiting for them when they alighted” (Star 69). Railroads also brought patients from a distance and doctors vied for residences in ideal locations in towns along rail lines. In cities, there was also an incentive for doctors to locate along streetcar routes.

Automobiles were first produced in the 1890s, and they became more reliable after the turn of the century. Doctors were among the first to buy cars. Physicians who wrote to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which published several supplements on automobiles between 1906 and 1912, reported that an auto cut the time required for house calls in half. “It is the same as if the day had forty-eight hours instead of twenty-four,” a doctor from Iowa rejoiced. (Kessel 814). The advent of the automobile industry was transforming the landscape of the United States. While only 22,000 automobiles were manufactured in the U.S. in 1904, a decade later car registration totaled more than 1 million. Gasoline, once a useless byproduct in the refinement of kerosene, quickly became the oil industry’s main product (McPhee 15).

By the mid-1920s the automobile market in the United States was becoming saturated. However, a large portion of the U.S. urban population still rode the extensive public transport networks of electric trolleys and trains. To leverage more profit GM, the largest automobile corporation in the country, diversified into other markets, including rail passenger service and busses. General Motors began to monopolize all sectors of the transportation industry. Yet automobiles returned higher profit margins than either buses or rail transport. It was in GM’s interest to see public transportation phased out. By reducing the number of busses and trains they could increase demand for their automobiles. Obviously, this was also advantageous for other automakers as well as the oil industry. More cars on the road would increase demand for gasoline (Snell).

Nowadays, we take for granted the advantages our transportation system provides. Patients can be quickly transported to healthcare centers—a few seconds can mean survival or death. “When serious injuries occur, the difference between life and death could be determined by the care a victim receives in the first ‘golden hour.’ Nowhere is that more true than on the battlefield. That’s why the U.S. military’s medical community is constantly developing technology and hardware to assure more of the wounded receive the appropriate trauma care before the golden hour is over. That includes reducing the time needed to locate the wounded warrior and evacuate him [or her] to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) facility” (Siuru 53).

It’s easy to miss the negative aspects when we think about how our transportation system has helped us improve quick access to healthcare. In addition, medical devices and supplies that are produced by using the byproducts of petroleum have significantly improved healthcare technology. But there is a dark side—the recent oil spill at the Deep Horizon site is a case in point. How can we promote the benefits of a healthy population if we are destroying the ecology of our planet? Health and wellness is a state of mind and body. Most would agree that apprehension about humankind’s predisposition to disregard the ecology of our planet is detrimental to a person’s mental wellbeing. Of course, when healthy ecosystems become polluted, humans suffer right along with all other biological organisms. Dianne Hales puts it this way: “You cannot separate your individual wellness from the security and health of the world in which you live.” She offers several dimensions of wellness, including environmental: “Creating a safe, healthy, supportive environment promotes wellness in its most global sense. Our fate is inevitably tied to the fate of our planet. The lifestyle choices we make, the products we use, the efforts we undertake to clean up a beach or save wetlands ultimately affect our own future” (354).

The Deep Horizon incident may go down as the worst oil spill in history, but there have been countless other spills. Table 1 and Figure 1 document only a sample of the many spills that have occurred in recent decades. Given only this small sample, the quantity of oil spilled would fill Lake Michigan. Many people have been killed in these accidents; sometimes whole crews have been lost. Clearly we must make safe drilling, recovery and transport of oil the paramount consideration for the oil industry. Safety and ecological responsibility must trump corporate profits. Fines, better inspection, market leadership concerning developing crisis-management operations that can quickly plug leaks (even at extreme depths) and more research on recovery methods to collect spilled oil are all important tools in the ecological responsibility toolbox. But, even if all this becomes reality, we are still living with blinders on.

Table 1: Some Major Oil Spills

Figure 1: Graph of Oil-Spill Volumes

Spillage is given in gallons of petroleum, based on a density of petroleum of 820 kg/cubic meter. Adapted from: Daidola, J.C. “Tanker structure behavior during collision and grounding.” Marine Technology, Vol. 32, No. 1, Jan. 1995, p. 22 (Table 1); Department of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, Oil Spills: Environmental Costs of Energy Use; Dagmar Schmidt Etkin and Jeff Welch. Oil Spill Intelligence Report. 1997 International Oil Spill Conference; Jack Devanney, Patrick Doyle, and Sisyphus Beach. Exploring the CTX Tanker Casualty Database: 2007–12 Update; Reference for Great Lakes Statistics.
* Source:

Fossil fuels clearly represent a finite, nonrenewable resource that is quickly being depleted. When we burn petroleum and coal to fuel our transportation systems, produce electricity, and heat our homes we are destroying ancient and precious entities in the process. The particular combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms now serving us so well as fuels were assembled some 10 million to 500 million years ago, and they have been undisturbed since that time. Once we oxidize them back into carbon dioxide and water (i.e., burn them), they are gone forever (Kraushaar and Ristinen 34).

The biodiversity crisis is “the current rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth, largely due to the effects of human culture” (Campbell et al. G3). Clearly, the tons of oil that we spill into the Earth’s oceans significantly contribute to the biodiversity crisis. But there is an even more ominous effect. When we burn fossil fuels we create greenhouse gases. Global warming is “a slow but steady rise in Earth’s surface temperature, caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere” (Ibid G11). Vast amounts of habitat, from tundra to tropical forest will be altered by global warming, resulting in the loss of many species of plants and animals—human health will be affected too. Global warming may spawn catastrophic heat waves and disease outbreaks. Less productive farms could increase food prices when demand surges due to supply shortages (Ibid 770-71).

The health of humankind and the health of the planet go hand-in-hand. The biosphere is “the entire portion of Earth inhabited by life; the sum of all the planet’s ecosystems” (Ibid G3). The relationship of humankind and the biosphere is aptly expressed by Native American traditions: Through the Great Spirit, everything is intimately connected and related to everything else. This connection is biological, spiritual, and psychic (Voss et al.). As stated previously, Hales emphasizes: “You cannot separate your individual wellness from the security and health of the world in which you live.” She describes the spiritual dimension of wellness as “[a] sense of personal security [which] enables us to focus on deeper issues. A belief in a higher value commits us to working toward the greater well-being of all people on Earth. This commitment can, at times, be illusory and very complicated. Never-the-less, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Milton Nascimento’s and Fernando Bradt’s poem O Planeta Blue is appropriate because it aptly delivers the message that all is not right and that if we are to survive as a species we must learn to become a part of the natural ecosystem and not simply rob from Earth’s bounty.

The first impression of
The Blue Planet
Is not the truest vision
Beyond the color, blue is also very sad
There can be a naked side, a raw side
A dark side of blue

—Pictures of Oil Spills—

Spillage is given in gallons of petroleum, based on a density of petroleum of 820 kg/cubic meter.

Atlantic Empress

Castillo De Bellver

Amoco Cadiz


Torrey Canyon



Jakob Maersk



Sea Empress

Katina P

Exxon Valdez

–Photo Credits–


Bonner, Thomas N. Medicine in Chicago, 1850–1950. Madison, WI: American History Research Center, 1957.

Campbell, Neil A., Jane B. Reece, Martha R. Taylor, and Eric J. Simon. Biology: Concepts & Connections. 5th ed. San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2006.

Hales, Diane. An Invitation to Wellness: Making Healthy Choices. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2007.

Kessel, George. “Would Not Practice Without an Auto.” Journal of American Medical Association 50 (March 7, 1908): 814.

Kraushaar, Jack J. and Robert A. Ristinen. Energy and Problems of a Technical Society. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.

McPhee, Douglas G. The Story of the Standard Oil Company of California. San Francisco: Standard Oil Company of California, 1937.

Siuru, Bill. “High-Tech Battlefield Medicine.” Electronics Now 68 (1997): 53–54. Applied Science & Technology; Readers Guide (Current Events). Wilson Web. WU Mabee Lib., Topeka, KS. 12 Jun. 2010 <>.

Snell, Bradford C. American Ground Transport: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus and Rail Industries. This report was prepared for the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, Committee on the Judiciary. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, U.S. Senate, 26 February 1974.

Star, Paul. The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The rise of a sovereign profession and the making of a vast industry. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Voss, Richard W., Victor Douvill, Alex Little Soldier, and Gayla Twiss. “Tribal and Shamanic-based social work practice: a Lakota perspective.” Social Work 44.3 (May 1999): 228(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. WU Mabee lib., Topeka, KS. 18 Jun. 2009

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