In order to increase awareness of the health impacts of climate change and to mobilize action to protect health, APHA has declared 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. This month’s theme is transportation and healthy community design. Increased use of transportation infrastructure can worsen the threat of climate-related health risks. For example, higher temperatures are linked to respiratory problems, which can be compounded by build-up of vehicular emissions and other types of air pollution in a concentrated area. Vulnerable populations, such as those living in low-income communities, are more likely to live near a major roadway and be exposed to traffic-related air pollution. As such, climate change will disproportionately impact communities that are already experiencing health inequities. Guest bloggers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Deron Lovaas and Juanita Constible, highlight the importance of considering the health impacts of transportation and collaborating across sectors.

Juanita Constible

Juanita Constible, Courtesy NRDC

Moving people and goods has long been about specific projects: from bridges and roads, to bike lanes and sidewalks. The wish lists circulating as the Trump administration presses for a new infrastructure bill are the latest illustration of how the public conversation about transportation focuses on narrow tactics, rather than a broad strategy that can efficiently meet multiple needs.

Thankfully, Congress recognized the importance of big-picture strategies in the 2012 transportation statute, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, known as MAP-21. This law includes new performance management requirements for long-range transportation plans based on seven national goal areas:

  • safety,
  • infrastructure condition,
  • congestion reduction,

    Deron Lovaas

    Deron Lovaas, Courtesy NRDC

  • system reliability,
  • freight movement and economic viability,
  • environmental sustainability, and
  • reduced project delivery delays.

The most recent MAP-21 rule will require Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs, and state departments of transportation, or DOTs, to do a better job of tracking unhealthy air pollution.

MPOs — groups of cities and counties in particular geographic regions — are one of the most important transportation planning bodies you’ve probably never heard of. There are more than 300 of them in the country, serving about 80 percent of the U.S. population. Federal law has long required MPOs and DOTs to develop 20-plus year strategic transportation plans in consultation with sister agencies, federal officials and the public. MPOs and DOTs have not, however, been historically required to track or measure cumulative pollution from portfolios of transportation projects.

That lack of direction shows. A recent study of 25 MPOs each serving a population of 1 million or more — presumably MPOs with sufficient planning capacity — found that only 15 specifically referred to “public health” or “human health” in their policy guidance, and only five had direct performance measures of health outcomes.

That’s a problem, because the transportation sector poses a myriad of health risks. In 2016, transportation surpassed power plants to become the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States. At the same time, vehicles are a major contributor to smog and other unhealthy air pollution. Between the immediate effects of tailpipe pollution and longer-term changes in climate from burning fossil fuels, America faces many more missed school days, hospital visits and premature deaths from dirtier air, contaminated food and water, more extreme heat and storms, and vector-borne illnesses. Our continued heavy dependence on fossil fuels in transportation is a particular threat to children, who also face a variety of developmental and behavioral disorders associated with pollution.

Fortunately, the rules driving better long-range planning through goal-setting and performance measurement are in place. The U.S. Department of Transportation now has the important job of implementing the MAP-21 standards in partnership with states and MPOs nationwide. And that’s where APHA members come in!

As it is the Year of Climate Change and Health, local and state health professionals have a golden opportunity to work with their colleagues at other agencies to make America’s transportation system cleaner and healthier. We urge you to ask your MPOs and DOTs for a seat at the table as they implement the U.S. DOT’s performance management rules in their long-range plans. With your help, transportation plans and the future they describe can be improved for the sake of public health and environmental sustainability.