Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy: Recommendations and Research

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010


The Transportation Prescription

In St. Louis, MO, major cuts in bus service this spring left workers, students, disabled people, and elderly residents stranded and feeling bereft. Stuart and Dianne Falk, who are both in wheelchairs, told CNN they no longer would be able to get to the gym or the downtown theater company where they volunteer. “To be saddled, to be imprisoned, that is what it is going to feeling like,” Stuart Falk said.

In West Oakland, CA, families have no escape from the diesel exhaust belching from trucks at the nearby port: The air inside some homes is five times more toxic than in other parts of the city. “I’m constantly doing this dance about cleaning diesel soot from my blinds and window sills,” 57-year-old Margaret Gordon told the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Seattle, WA, Maggieh Rathbun, a 55-year-old diabetic who has no car, takes an hour-long bus ride to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. She cannot haul more than a few small bags at a time so she shops frequently—if she feels well enough. “It depends on what kind of day I’m having with my diabetes to decide whether I’m going to make do with a bowl of cereal or try to go get something better,” she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Our transportation system has an enormous impact on our way of life, on the air we breathe, and on the vitality of our communities.  Transportation choices influence personal decisions about where to live, shop, attend school, work, and enjoy leisure. They affect stress levels, family budgets, and the time we spend with our children. Although most people don’t think of it as a determinant of health, our transportation system has far-reaching implications for our risk of disease and injury. Transportation policies and accompanying land use patterns contribute to the glaring health disparities between the affluent and the poor and between white people and people of color.

This report demonstrates that transportation policy is, in effect, health policy—and environmental policy, food policy, employment policy, and metropolitan development policy, each of which bears on health independently and in concert with the others. Longstanding transportation and land use policies are at odds with serious health, environmental, and economic needs of the country, and they have harmed low-income communities and communities of color especially. Forward-thinking transportation policies must promote healthy, green, safe, accessible, and affordable ways of getting where we need to go. They also must go hand in hand with equitable, sustainable land use planning and community economic development.

Streets and roads are the largest chunks of property owned by most cities and states. We have choices to make about how to use, and share, that real estate. Who decides? Who benefits? Who pays? Transportation policy at all levels of government can be a vehicle to promote public health, sustainability, equitable opportunity, and the economic strength of neighborhoods, cities, and regions. But that will happen only if advocates, experts, and organizers steeped in all these issues bring their knowledge and passion to critical transportation decisions. The upcoming authorization of the most important transportation legislation in the United States, the federal surface transportation bill, makes this a pivotal moment to bring a broad vision for health and equity to transportation policy.

Transportation in America: A New Vision

Underlying this report is a vision of transportation as more than a means to move people and goods, but also as a way to build healthy, opportunity-rich communities. Health is often viewed from an individual perspective.  Yet, each resident in a region is both an individual and part of a larger community. Therefore, our vision for healthy, equitable communities is one that extends beyond individual outcomes and creates conditions that allow all to reach their full potential. It does not force us to balance one individual against another. It provides the opportunity for everyone to participate in their community, be healthy, and prosper.

Transportation systems are essential to the competitiveness of the nation and the viability of regions. Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials, views increased transportation investment as a key to the economic growth and job creation needed to strengthen cities and rural communities. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the nearly $1 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in early 2009, emphasizes transportation investments to revive the ailing economy and rebuild regions.  The act galvanized advocates to push government agencies to spend the money in ways that promote health, protect the environment, and benefit everyone. Now momentum is building to bring a focus on health and equity to the next version of the federal surface transportation bill.

Over the past half-century, federal transportation policy has changed the American landscape, physically, socially, and culturally. Beginning with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorizing the Interstate Highway System, the leading transportation priority by far has been what planners call mobility and which became synonymous with the movement of more and more cars and goods farther and faster. Mobility advanced the nation’s growth and prosperity, and it formed our sense of identity as well as our image abroad. The car was more than a machine to get us around; it stood as a symbol of American freedom, ingenuity, and manufacturing prowess.

While some have few or no transportation choices due to limited transportation infrastructure and resources in their communities, many Americans do have the opportunity to make choices about how to travel and where to go. For these people, the car provides the means to flee the city, buy a quarter-acre patch of suburbia, and drive to their hearts’ content without giving much thought to the disinvested neighborhoods left behind, or the farmland lost to development, or the fossil fuels and other natural resources their lifestyles consumed. Community environments, however, affect the choices individuals make, and public policy molds those environments. As the nation confronts severe economic, environmental, and health challenges as well as the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is becoming clear that we must make different choices as individuals and as a society.

A new framework for transportation policy and planning is emerging. Rather than focus almost exclusively on mobility (and its corollaries, speed and distance), this framework also emphasizes transportation accessibility. In other words, instead of designing transportation systems primarily to move cars and goods, the new approach calls for systems designed to serve people—all peopl —efficiently, affordably, and safely. This approach prioritizes investments in: (1) public transportation, walking, and bicycling—transportation modes that can promote health, opportunity, environmental quality, and indeed mobility for people who do not have access to cars; and (2) communities with the greatest need for affordable, safe, reliable transportation linkages linkages to jobs, and essential goods and services—chiefly, low income communities and communities of color.

The goal is to improve transportation for everyone while delivering other important payoffs, including better respiratory and cardiovascular health; improved physical fitness; less emotional stress; cleaner air; quieter streets; fewer traffic injuries and deaths; and greater access to jobs, nutritious foods, pharmacies, clinics, and other essentials for healthy, productive living.

Download full report (PDF): Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy

About PolicyLink
“PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works.® PolicyLink work is guided by the belief that those closest to the nation’s challenges are central to the search for solutions. With local and national partners, PolicyLink is spotlighting promising practices, supporting advocacy campaigns, and helping to bridge the traditional divide between local communities and policymaking at the local, regional, state, and national levels.”

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2 Responses to “Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy: Recommendations and Research”

  1. Transit Director says:

    This is a great topic. I would like to have someone talk about this at my 2010 State Transit Conference. Who do I talk to about this?

  2. Dan Lavoie says:

    Hi Transit Director! Glad you like the content. If you’re looking for a speaker, please feel free to get in touch with me and I’ll send you on to the right person (I’m the Associate Director for Communications at PolicyLink). You can email me at dan (at)

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