Making the Connection between Public Health and Transportation

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Transportation affects health.

Latinos, for example, often face unsafe streets and big transportation hurdles that make it hard, costly, and even deadly to access basic and health needs. They end up suffering higher rates of disease, diabetes, depression, pedestrian injuries and deaths, and more.

Yet transportation and public health professionals don’t always get together for solutions.

Fortunately, the Transportation Research Board is enabling these connections.

The Board created its Health & Transportation Subcommittee in 2011, hosted a topical conference and magazine edition in 2015, and will carve out space in its 2018 annual meeting to explore this topic.

“[We aim] to identify, advance and publish research and information to expand and improve current understanding and evaluation of the health impacts of federal, state, regional and local transportation policies, procedures and actions,” according to its website, “with attention to vulnerable populations.”

The Transportation Research Board and its Subcommittee

The Board, one of seven programs of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, created the Subcommittee to make it easier for transportation professionals to understand their intersections with public health and connect better to the public health community.

Exciting progress is happening frequently as a result.

State transportation departments are adopting health policies. Metropolitan planning organizations are shifting policy to focus on active transportation. Public health departments are engaging in transportation-related programs, like Complete Streets.

In 2015, the Health & Transportation Subcommittee hosted a conference on quantifying the public health outcomes of active transportation, with sessions and workshops to share emerging research, network with peers, and identify gaps and next steps for practice and research.

Later in 2015, they and more than 300 friends developed a special issue of TR News, the Board’s bimonthly magazine, to address the connections between public health and transportation.

“Integrating health-enhancing choices into transportation policy has the potential to save lives and money by preventing chronic diseases, reducing motor vehicle–related injury and deaths, and improving environmental health, while achieving the goals of stimulating economic development and ensuring access to opportunity and to goods and services for all,” wrote Andrew Dannenberg and Ipek N. Sener in the magazine.

The edition, Public Health and Transportation: Innovation, Intervention and Improvements, featured conference highlights and information on:

  • Health impacts of transportation decisions
  • Glossary of public health terms
  • Health impact assessment tool
  • How two metropolitan planning organizations address physical activity
  • Ways transportation professionals can connect with the public health community
  • Infectious disease and airborne pathogens

The San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission, for example, measured the effects of physical activity and transportation and found that slower bus travel times correlated with increases in walking and bicycling.

Slower speeds are crucial for safety—real and perceived.

“Monetizing the health care savings was important for a performance-based transportation plan, because the benefits from transportation metrics typically are expressed in dollars—for example, dollars saved from congestion reduction,” wrote Sean Co in the magazine. “The cobenefits of active transportation projects are significant and could justify transportation investments in infrastructure for walking or cycling.”

The edition also featured articles from representatives of the parent committees of the Health & Transportation Subcommittee. They address research interests and perspectives on issues like urban data and information systems, travel behavior and values, transportation and sustainability, and environmental justice in transportation.

In July 2018, Mobility Lab released a new infographic on public health and transportation based on research from the TRB.

Whether in public health or transportation, you can use these resources to start the conversation with professionals outside your field.

Start with the following talking points on the health impacts of transportation decisions from the TRB:

  1. Funds spent on transportation systems that promote public health may reduce health care costs in the long term.
  2. Recent trends suggest that the younger generations are choosing to drive less and to walk, bicycle, and use transit more.
  3. Transportation professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of climate change on the transportation system and its infrastructure.
  4. Developing a balanced transportation system that includes transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities, as well as motor vehicle lanes, is more efficient and cost-effective than spending the majority of a transportation budget on roads for motor vehicles only.
  5. Transportation professionals who choose to promote transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities will find powerful and credible voices of support from the public health community.
Chance of being killed by a driver going 30 mph. Source: Lena Groeger/ProPublica

Also, check out these interactive graphs demonstrating how risk of severe injury and fatality increases with speed.

The 2019 Conference

The Board’s Health & Transportation Subcommittee now has issued a call for research papers for the Board’s 98th Annual Meeting.

They seek research papers expanding and improving our knowledge of methods, data, tools, and models that help enhance integration of public health and transportation.

For example, they seek information on the role of transportation in enabling access to health care and medical facilities.

The deadline for papers is Aug. 1, 2018.

Subscribe to the  TRB Health and Transportation Subcommittee Listserv and join the Group on Facebook and LinkedIn. 

By The Numbers By The Numbers

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Pedestrians survive when hit by a car at 40 MPH

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