Health and Transportation - A Tipping Point in California

Jeanie Ward-WallerAdvocates for Safe Routes to School and active transportation have long recognized the health impacts of our transportation system. The transportation decisions we make – or worse, the opportunities many people lack because of barriers in the built environment – can have beneficial or detrimental effects on our health. During an inspiring week at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference in Long Beach, health was a pervasive theme across the program. Whether the discussion focused on crash and injury prevention, increasing physical activity and reducing obesity, creating safe passages to reduce violence or reducing congestion and air pollution and the resulting incidence of asthma, health is clearly and inextricably tied to transportation and the built environment in every community in America. At the federal level, the US Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently hosted a White House Roundtable on Health and Transportation (represented by the Safe Routes Partnership’s own Deputy Director Margo Pedroso) to stimulate discussion around this critically important issue.

Here in California, the momentum has been building for the state government to take decisive action on the health impacts of transportation. For years, the California Department of Public Health’s California Active Communities branch has led efforts on injury prevention and promotion of physical activity, and partnered with Caltrans to support programs such as Safe Routes to School. In 2010, the multi-agency Strategic Growth Council established a health in all policies task force to identify opportunities for cross-agency coordination to include health impacts in policy development.

And this week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law which may be a tipping point in state-led action on health and transportation. Co-sponsored by our partners at the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN) and TransForm, Assembly Bill 441 requires the California Transportation Commission to include a summary of local transportation projects that promote health and equity in the state’s Regional Transportation Planning (RTP) Guidance. RTPs are 25-year transportation plans that direct funding decisions in California’s 18 metropolitan areas, and which must include a Sustainable Communities Strategy to integrate transportation planning with housing and development projections in order to meet the greenhouse gas emissions goals set by the 2008 climate change bill SB375. In 2013, with the requirements of this new legislation, health impacts will also be described in updates to each RTP, such that the health benefits of active transportation projects and the health impacts of highway projects will be unequivocal. Ensuring proper implementation of this legislation is still a task before us and our health and equity partners across the state, but it opens a door into a new era where public health is a key factor in transportation planning.