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Light rail could improve public health if planned properly, US academic

Light rail would address a growing obesity crisis provided the ACT governments make strategic choices about station placement and urban planning, according to a leading US academic.  

Mark Fenton, an adjunct professor at Tufts University and public health consultant, said the public transport infrastructure was a politicised issue in the US and Australia although the health benefits were clear.

"If what we end up doing is just building giant car parks at light rail stops then all we will do is just encourage more people to continue driving," he said.

"But if we can build small villages with basic utilities and encourage people to walk or cycle to the tram them we can begin to address an epidemic of inactivity."

He said international experience had shown telling people to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day was not proving successful, and the key was integrating physical activity into everyday life.

Mr Fenton, who is travelling Australia to assess the "walkability" of capital cities, said Canberra was similar to many US cities struggling to shake a reliance on the car.

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"In the United States we have seen 45 years of urban planning based around the car and that has led us to become the most obese nation in the world," he said.

"If cities continue to follow the US model then we're going to have a problem because physical inactivity is the real epidemic we should be talking about."

His comments come as the ACT government launch a partnership with the Canberra Business Chamber to link local businesses to light rail.

The partnership will allow businesses to identify opportunities to work with the successful light rail bidder in pre and post-construction phases.

Canberra Business Chamber chief executive Robyn Hendry said the partnerships could involve businesses as diverse as hospitality, printing, accounting and landscaping.  

"These programs will promote the region as a great place to visit and do business, increase exports, make sure local businesses have capacity to pursue opportunities created by major infrastructure projects and focus on improving the health of Canberra's children," she said.

Mr Fenton, who was once a member of a US walking team, said he had travelled across the territory and found different suburbs were more conducive to physical activity than others.

"Ainslie appears to be a little neighbourhood of mixed use shops where people are able to walk or cycle short distances to get everything they need," he said.

'We drove out to Gungahlin where they are trying to replicate the model with cycling paths linking people to stores, although these were often big box retailers that are challenging for some people to navigate.

Mr Fenton said light rail and public transport policy had unnecessarily become a political issue in the US and Australia, often ignoring health and environmental benefits.

"There is no doubt in my mind the light rail should be seen as a health, economic and environment policy and ministers should be fully on board," he said.