By Robert S. Ogilvie, Vice President for Strategic Engagement at ChangeLab Solutions.
In 2010, The Cascade Land Conservancy (which now goes by the name Forterra) launched a campaign to put a complete streets ordinance in place in Edmonds, Washington. The ordinance, which was adopted unanimously in 2011, aimed to take the city’s streets, originally designed for cars and trucks, and make them more accessible for all users, from pedestrians and transit riders to people on bikes.
When street environments support walking—through sidewalks, crosswalks, easily accessible building entrances, convenient destinations, and the like—more people walk and bike. The evidence is clear: more daily physical activity leads to lower rates of obesity, hypertension, and other health problems. Communities that plan for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users through complete streets and other policies improve health for all.
The case for public health in transportation planning
Unfortunately, a study released by the University of Colorado Denver in early June shows too many transportation projects ignore health considerations, particularly when these planning projects affect lower-income neighborhoods.
Last month, researchers at Portland State University also released evidence that black pedestrians are passed by twice as many cars as white pedestrians while waiting to use a crosswalk, a disparity that could lead minority pedestrians to take greater risks when crossing a street. In fact, CDC data has shown the fatality rates for black and Latino male pedestrians are twice as high as they are for white male pedestrians.
The data from these studies underscores why it’s more important than ever for transportation planners to consider health, and for public health advocates to get involved in transportation planning. The choices made by transportation planners at all levels, from the federal government to local communities, have a significant impact on chronic disease rates, air quality, and equitable access to services and economic opportunities.
How public health advocates can get involved
Public health advocates can educate and influence decision-makers at all levels of government—making the connection between transportation and health clear, explaining the impact of transportation investments, and keeping leaders accountable for priorities reflected in local and regional planning processes.
Here are ways public health advocates can get involved:
- Assess Current Plans: Make sure existing plans include healthy transportation goals and policies that address the distinct needs of young, elderly, disabled, and low-income community members, who are often dependent upon transit, walking and/or biking. It is important to note, however, that in many cases, plans cannot be changed until the community is scheduled to update a particular plan or issue a new plan. Likewise, there are many different plans that can be assessed, including general plans or comprehensive plans, and a wide array of different transportation plans.
- Build or Support a Coalition: Find like-minded advocates interested in the work, and reach out to potential partners.
- Make a Case for Health: Develop relationships with elected officials, planners, and other policymakers, and educate them about the links between transportation and health.
- Attend Community Planning Meetings: Participate in regional and local community meetings to voice the importance for including health in the discussion during these processes.
- Work to Improve Standards: Use design standards and metrics to prioritize alternative transportation (walking, biking and accessing transit), and work with local and regional decision-makers to craft a set of health guidelines that can be used to better evaluate potential projects.
The way our roads and public transit systems are designed greatly affects our health: it influences how much exercise we get, our exposure to noise and air pollution, our risk of getting injured in a traffic collision, and more. It’s time for planners to look at creating complete streets in all our communities, and to do so with an eye toward how they will make everyone healthier. Likewise, it’s time for public health advocates to make their voices heard to ensure transportation planning processes yield the healthiest results.
ChangeLab Solutions offers an array of tools to help communities planning transportation projects that incorporate health considerations, including Getting Involved in Transportation Planning: An Overview for Public Health Advocates, Move This Way: Making Neighborhoods More Walkable and Bikeable, and Making Streets Welcoming for Walking.
Robert Ogilvie serves as the Vice President for Strategic Engagement at ChangeLab Solutions. Over the past 20 years he has worked extensively in community development and planning to help improve low- and middle-income neighborhoods.