UTTRI Faculty Snapshot: Assistant Professor Michael J. Widener

How I got from hurricane relief centres to time-use in transportation

– Michael J. Widener

Professor Michael Widener in his office at Sid Smith Hall. (Photo: Pat Doherty)

Professor Michael Widener in his office at Sid Smith Hall. (Photo: Pat Doherty)

What aspects of transportation does your research address?

I’m interested in how transportation networks facilitate or possibly limit our potential to be healthy.

Currently my team and I are looking at how transportation affects a household’s ability to access healthy foods and maintain healthy diets.

Specifically, in my SSHRC funded research project we’re looking at about 400 people living in tower communities in Toronto and how their diets are influenced by their use of different transport modes, which in turn are influenced by proximity to transit and/or food retailers, like supermarkets. My hypothesis is that proximity alone – living next to a supermarket – isn’t necessarily going to help people. The time-use diaries we will collect will shed light on the relationship between time-pressure and healthy dietary choices. The project is called the Food Activities, Socioeconomics, Time-Use, and Transportation (FASTT) study.

I’ve also researched emergency medical service transportation and how transportation strategies affect survival and access in situations where critical care or trauma services are needed.

What other important aspects of transportation does it connect to?

My research ties into other research on transportation and health. For example, traffic emissions affect air quality and health outcomes, and built environment itself has impacts on health.

How did you arrive at your area of interest?

I started in Geography and then did a Master’s where my thesis focused on spatial optimization modeling, which is a fancy way of saying “locating facilities in places where people have the most access to them.” I was studying where post-hurricane relief facilities should be located. There’s lots of parts to it, but I think I was interested in the math of getting people access to supplies.

During my PhD studies I became interested in the “food desert” concept as a way to conceptualize access to healthy food. But I thought that the food desert metaphor overemphasized the geography of food access. I began to see access to healthy food as a multifaceted problem involving not only geography but also money, taste, cultural aspects, time-use, and more. For example, even with great spatial access to healthy food, less nutritious eating might be linked to time constraints. Summertime local farmers markets improve access; suburban sprawl and long commute times will tend to decrease access.

That’s how I got from hurricane relief centres to time-use in transportation.

What drives you to continue research in this area?

I think it’s important that we try to do research that has meaningful impact on people’s lives. We can identify issues and help policies be implemented to improve them. The City of Toronto Public Health now has a Toronto Food Strategy to increase access to healthy food. We’re trying to work with them as much as possible as our research projects progress.

What impact have you achieved or do you hope for?

We don’t know exactly why people are buying food in the locations where they’re buying it. If we understand that better, hopefully we can develop new solutions that will help us:

  • Reduce food insecurity
  • Provide healthy diets for families of all incomes
  • Make the city a healthier place – for healthier people.

Posted August 29, 2018

Michael J. Widener is Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Transportation and Health, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto.

UTTRI Faculty Snapshots is a series highlighting UTTRI associated faculty.