Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting: Intersection of Health and Transportation

Jan 23, 2012, 5:30 PM, Posted by

Most of us get in our cars, subways, buses, trains and walking shoes without thinking much about the network of decisions and research that went into making that commute a little bit easier – and, more and more, healthier. This week, more than 11,000 transportation and transportation research professionals convene in Washington, DC for the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting to discuss exactly those issues. Yesterday’s full-day workshop, “Intersection of Health and Transportation: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and How We Can Better Integrate Health Considerations Into Transportation Decisions,” organized by the TRB Health and Transportation Subcommittee is a chance to look at how we drive, metro, walk and bike and how it affects our health.

One theme that emerged today included the critical role of cross-sector partnerships. Innovative new collaborative planning teams are springing up from local to national levels, including North Carolina’s Healthy Environments Collaborative, launched in 2006, with partners from the North Carolina Departments of Commerce, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Transportation, with the purpose of shaping policies that influence physical activity-friendly environments. On a national level, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities is an interagency collaboration between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Presenters also spoke about the need to emphasize that strategies that support public health have co-benefits across a variety of issues, including a cleaner environment and safer roaders and motor vehicle injury prevention. Arthur Wendel, MD, MPH, Team Lead of the Healthy Community Design Initiative at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussed the alignment of physical activity and safety and motor vehicle injury prevention goals – common solutions include better medians and pedestrian refuge areas, more sidewalks and shared use lanes, and a more robust public transportation infrastructure.

Why is public transportation so critical to public health? Public transports’ links to physical activity and obesity have been well-explored. Nearly 30 percent of public transit users exceed the 30 minutes of daily recommended physical activity, simply as part of their everyday commute, said Dr. Wendel – compare that to the fact that 36 percent of the general population of U.S. adults get no physical activity at all.

Dr. Wendel also mentioned that health impact assessments are one important tool to help weave health considerations into transportation decisions. “Coming from a clinical background, I view it as similar to a pre-op physical to make sure your heart, lungs and kidneys will be able to survive the operation,” said Dr. Wendel. “Health impact assessments make sure the public’s health will come out better after a transportation decision.”

Leslie Meehan, Director of the Healthy Communities program of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, noted that unlike the proactive health impact assessment approach, most transportation decisions are made in a reactive planning mode, in response to the need to mitigate land use problems like roadway congestion. In fact, most of the measurement tools around transportation “focus on mobility – not quality of life or accessibility,” said Meehan. She described some of the challenges in shifting the thinking around transportation. The Healthy Communities program reached out to policymakers and decision-makers with the following messages, bringing to light the underlying health, social and economic implications of transportation:

  • Ninety percent of Nashville residents spent over 20 percent of their income on transportation.
  • Nashville’s aging populations is leading to more people losing access to personal transportation.
  • The steep upward trend in daily vehicle miles traveled closely mirrors the steep upward trend in the obesity rate over the past 40 years.
  • There are economic implications of transportation-related health effects in that an unhealthy child cannot learn and an unhealthy worker cannot work.

In response, the Healthy Communities group championed a restructured funding mechanism that prioritizes health and safety concerns. As a result, 70 adopted roadway projects include sidewalks, bike lanes or shared-use provisions, compared to 2 percent in prior plans.

>>Check out to view emerging research in this area.

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