Street Talk with NYC's Top Doctor: Commissioner Farley's Prescription for Healthy City

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Tom Farley recently sat down with Reclaim for a short interview. He assured us that after a very busy spring and fall, when H1N1 outbreaks were his department's number one priority, he's settling in to his new role as NYC's top doctor. Farley rides a bike on the weekends, takes the subway home from work, and is driven to the office in a City-owned car each morning so he can get a jump on his email, and because he doesn't own his own (ed. good choice!).

T.A.: Your book, "Prescription for a Healthy Nation," made the rounds here at our office and one of the things that really struck us was the diminishing influence of public health over the last generation.

Commissioner Farley: I wouldn't say that public health's influence is diminishing so much as public health nationally has continued to focus, disproportionately, on the problems of 100 or 150 years ago: infectious diseases. We still need to have some focus on infectious diseases but clearly the leading causes of death and disability today are not infectious diseases; they are chronic diseases and injuries, and public health has been slow to catch up in addressing those. I would say that this agency has really been leading the way, nationally, about how a local health department can focus on the modern leading causes of death by focusing on smoking, diet, physical activity and injury prevention.

You mention physical activity. What efforts do you hope to make on that front?

If you think about the behaviors that really matter to health these days, physical activity is either number two or number three, after smoking and healthy eating, so it is extremely important. And that doesn't just mean deliberate exercise. Certainly exercise is very important, but for an awful lot of people, physical activity is done in the course of their everyday activities. At the Health Department, we are encouraging both. We've got programs like "Shape up New York" as well as physical activity classes in parks, and we are working with other agencies to try to make it easy for people to get physical activity in the course of their daily routine.

We always hear New York City called one of the world's great walking cities. Is all of that walking the kind of physical activity that you are hoping to encourage and promote?

Absolutely. We put out a report a couple of weeks ago, "Physical Activity in New York City," that showed an association: People who are active commuters are healthier. And certainly we want people to incorporate physical activity into their commute to work and the way that they do their errands. And we've got a great head start with much of New York being very walkable. Still, there is more that we can do to make it more walkable and more bikeable.

Can you talk to us a little bit about the Brooklyn District Public Health Office's upcoming study about bike lanes in Bedford-Stuyvesant?

We want to better understand how people actually ride bicycles in New York and the obstacles they face. So this past summer our Bedford-Stuyvesant Bike Lane Study tested out a new way to study urban cycling. We placed video cameras in four different city blocks and filmed for a total of 40 hours. The tapes were reviewed and coded for the characteristics of cyclists and others using the streets for physical activity, as well as for the frequency of vehicles driving in or obstructing the bike lanes. We also surveyed over 300cyclists on the streets to learn more about their background characteristics, behaviors, attitudes and experiences. We are currently analyzing the results.

Did you have a chance to attend Summer Streets this past August?

I did. I actually went with Commissioner Sadik-Khan. We rode around Manhattan and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Had you seen its iterations either in Latin America or other American cities before, or was this summer a first for you?

It was a first for me, and it was absolutely wonderful. You have a totally different view of Manhattan when you are riding a bicycle down the middle of the street and there are no cars.

Do you see a role for your agency in bringing those events to more neighborhoods around the city?

I think that there is a role for us to talk about the value of those and maybe help facilitate other groups that may want to close off streets for temporary periods of time for activities. For example, a simple block closure, which enables kids to play in the streets, is something which is good physical activity for the kids. It gets them out so they are not watching television, away from the refrigerator, brings the community together and so that is the sort of thing that we can encourage. We are not going to be doing that ourselves because it needs to take place scattered through neighborhoods across the city, but making that process simple and encouraging people to do that and pointing out its value is something, I think, that is a role for the Health Department.

Do you think you are ready to bike commute in New York C City like you did in New Orleans?

I don't have a car so I ride my bicycle all over the place on the weekends. I haven't ridden my bicycle in Staten Island yet but I have ridden in every other borough. I have no fear of commuting by bicycle to the Health Department building. At the moment when it is 20 degrees out and there is snow on the ground, I think that I am not going to do it right now. But when things get a little warmer and flu is behind us, that is something I may do in the spring.

Thanks, Commissioner Farley. We look forward to seeing you on two wheels.