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Although people of color make up about one third of the population, they make up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths.

Transportation and public health: a growing alliance

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Public demand for more walkable communities is arguably at its highest point in recent history.

Support from decision makers is catching fire, and the cross pollination between transportation planning and public health is starting to bear fruit.

Trusted experts like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Public Health Association, and major foundation funders like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Kaiser Permanente are strongly promoting walkable, bikable and transit-friendly communities as key strategies for improved health. 

Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cemented this growing alliance further by issuing a landmark “Call to Action” on walking and creating walkable communities. 

This alignment of interests is not a new one. Back at the turn of the 20th century, the public health and urban planning professions worked hand-in-hand to prevent communicable disease and create healthier communities.

We now face a new health crisis in the form of sedentary lifestyles and associated diseases. Years of building communities centered around cars is proving to have grave consequences.

Among the harmful effects of drive-only communities is the increase in time spent being sedentary. There’s a well-established relationship between the time spent in a car and a person’s likelihood of being overweight. 

But obesity isn’t the only connection between transportation and public health. Transportation’s impact on air quality and respiratory health are well documented. Thirty percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to transportation. 

Equity concerns also impact people’s health and transportation realities. Data shows that people with low income, people of color, older adults and people with disabilities suffer lower life expectancies and higher chronic disease rates than others. These same groups also experience higher rates of getting hit by cars while walking, lower access to cars and driving, and spend a much higher percentage of their household income on transportation costs.

The public health community’s recent focus on transportation and the physical settings where we live and work is based on a growing emphasis on the prevention rather than the treatment of disease.

Promoting ways for people to move more – in part through daily activities like walking and biking for transportation – is an ideal prevention strategy.

The renewed partnership between public health and the built environment has resulted in some exciting opportunities for Active Trans and the communities we serve. Now there are grant, technical assistance and training programs to help communities fundamentally alter the way they plan and build their local transportation systems.

Initiatives like Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School and better zoning and land use regulations have a whole new generation of champions and allies that add credibility and urgency to our cause.

And the active transportation movement is by far richer, smarter and more powerful with our public health champions inside the tent.