How Does Transportation Impact Health?

Transportation can be harmful to our health, but it doesn’t need to be.

The U.S. transportation system amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars each year in traffic crashes, air pollution and physical inactivity. Yet health is typically not considered in transportation policy and planning, even though transportation is one of the economic and social factors that influences people’s health and the health of a community.

How Does Transportation Affect Health?

While motorized transportation modes still dominate—leading to increased air pollution, traffic crashes, and decreased physical activity—opportunities abound to increase alternative transportation options that support walking and cycling and improve health.

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 live, learn, work, and play. While this system has increased mobility and access to goods and services, it relies predominantly on motorized transportation—and that has consequences for health.

Health costs associated with traffic crashes, air pollution, and physical inactivity add up to hundreds of billions of dollars each year, but health is typically not considered in transportation policy and planning.

Our transportation system also contributes to physical inactivity—each additional hour spent in a car per day increases the likelihood of obesity. Conversely, each added kilometer walked per day reduces obesity risk.

Walkable, bikable, transit-oriented communities are associated with healthier populations. People in such communities are more physically active, have less weight gain, have lower rates of traffic injuries, and are less exposed to air pollution.

Transportation is a critical factor that influences people’s health and the health of a community. Investments in sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, public transit, and other infrastructure that supports physical activity can result in improvements to individuals’ health and decreased health care costs.