Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood: National Prevention Strategy Series

Oct 25, 2012, 3:58 PM

Ray LaHood Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

A new conversation with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood continues a series of interviews by NewPublicHealth with the heads of federal agencies that comprise the National Prevention Council, convened to partner across government to help create a healthier nation through the National Prevention Strategy.

The U.S. transportation system is a web of highways, bridges, roads, sidewalks, bike paths, trains, and buses that connect people to each other and to places where they work, learn, play, shop, and get medical care. This makes transportation a critical factor in the health and quality—as well as the economic viability—of life of communities. In addition to devoting significant resources and attention to improving the safety of motor vehicle-based transportation, the Department of Transportation and partners across the country are working to provide more transportation options that support walking and cycling and improve health.

>>Check out a new infographic exploring the connection between transportation and health.

Read the new interview with Secretary LaHood.

NPH: Who are some of the Department of Transportation’s partners on the intersection of transportation and health?

Secretary Ray LaHood: We’ve worked with communities all over America on their priorities for improving transportation, but also improving the quality of life in communities. We’ve worked with mayors, we’ve worked with transportation officials, and we’ve worked with advocacy groups. We’ve tried to take best practices in cities that have paid attention to the environment and quality of life in their communities, and lead by not only our own example, but by taking examples from leadership in communities where mayors and transportation advocates and some of our best partners have done extraordinary work on really improving health and quality of life by way of transportation.

We work closely with many different groups, not only here in Washington, but all across the country. For example, we have joined with other agencies for a project called Safe Routes to School that helps create environments where students can walk and bicycle to school safely by allowing children to pick routes to school that are safe for walking – so that their parents don’t have to drive them and so they don’t have to be on a bus. We have a great relationship with bikers all over America, and whenever I go into a community I often have opportunities to meet with the cycling advocates in communities.

We also work closely with advocates to make sure that children are in the right size child safety seats, and we partner with Mothers against Drunk Driving to get drunk drivers off the road. We have lots of advocacy groups and friends around the country who wake up every day and think about safety on the roadways, in vehicles, outside of vehicles, in public transportation.

NPH: How is the DOT working to help prevent injuries related to transportation, such as distracted driving?

Secretary Ray LaHood: When you’re looking at a mobile device from behind the wheel of a car, whether you’re texting or looking at a message, in the span of four seconds your car goes the length of a football field. That means you’re not looking through the windshield that entire time. What we’re trying to persuade people is to put these devices in the glove compartment when they’re driving. Because whether you’re talking on a cell phone or you’re texting or you’re receiving a text, you’re not paying attention to safe driving. When it comes to distracted driving, we’ve had great partnerships with both insurance and cell phone companies to get the message out.

And, we have partnered with [the television show] “Glee.”

[Read more about DOT and other partners’ distracted driving public service announcements featuring the cast of the television show “Glee” as part of the Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks campaign.]

When it comes to distracted driving, we know that we need to continue to reach teenagers, who are most vulnerable, and so using our friends at Glee has been very, very helpful.

NPH: What are some key transportation projects you’d point to that are helping to improve the health of communities?

Secretary Ray LaHood: We’ve funded a number of forms of transportation, including street cars, and that program allows for people to get out of their cars, which also lets us take some congestion off the roadways.

We’ve also funded a lot of walking and biking paths, as part of our whole livable and sustainable community program to give people more options. There are many communities around America that want to have opportunities to bike or walk to work or to run an errand or for leisure, and certainly these walking and biking paths that we have promoted and funded help create more options. Street cars, light rail, bus rapid transit, and walking and biking paths, are all options to get people out of their cars, but also to provide a level of safety that people are looking for.

NPH:  DOT is a partner, with HUD and EPA, in the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. What are the key projects in this partnership for DOT and how do they impact health?

Secretary Ray LaHood: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and I did a little tour a couple of years ago where we stopped in Chicago and visited a transit facility, a green facility by the way, that housed a number of different programs. Then we went on to Dubuque, Iowa, where we met some people who were reinventing the downtown area, and IBM had just announced then that they were going to move 1,500 people into the downtown facility that they were renovating. We put some money in there, HUD has put some money in there for housing [toward “livability” efforts, including the development of mixed income housing, revitalized workplaces and sustainable transportation options].

And, we went from there on to Denver, which has one of the largest bike share programs. They’ve developed a light rail program that delivers people from six different regions around Denver into downtown Denver, and so our collaboration has really been around the idea of creating good transportation, affordable transportation with affordable housing, and making sure that we’re doing it in a way that reflects good environmental conditions in communities.

NPH: Do you see community leaders taking ownership of transportation and housing and environmental improvements as critical to health in their communities?

Secretary Ray LaHood: I do. People today, when they look at a community to live in, and certainly businesses to locate in, are looking at whether it’s a place where they can find the kind of the workers that they need. Is it a place that has the kind of transportation that can deliver people? Is it a community that offers the amenities to their employees [that can create opportunities for healthy lifestyles], whether it’s walking and biking paths, whether it’s good transportation, whether it’s opportunities for mobility around the community?

So, it’s a combination of many different things, but I think mayors and elected officials and communities realize that you have to have affordable housing, you have to have good transportation, and you have to have the kind of amenities that will attract people. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.