Transportation agencies have yet to fully consider public health, study finds

Patrick Singleton of Portland State University presents research on transportation and public health at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting Jan. 11-15 in Washington, D.C.

Despite the many connections between transportation and public health, many agencies tasked with long-range transportation planning have yet to completely consider effects on health, a Portland State University research team found. The research will be presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. Jan. 11-15.

Patrick Singleton, a Portland State graduate student researcher, will present the paper “Incorporating public health in U.S. long-range metropolitan transportation planning: A review of guidance statements and performance measures,” during a poster session Tuesday. The paper grew out of concepts developed in a Portland State course on transportation and health taught by Prof. Kelly Clifton, who is a coauthor on the paper.

Individually, transportation and public health each have a wealth of research. That research doesn’t always cross over, Singleton said.

“The integration of these disciplines is in its infancy,” he said.

If transportation planning agencies were to fully consider transportation and health connections, those considerations would show up in their long-term plans, the research team reasoned. Performance measures would point to the potential effects of a health focus.

The researchers focused on 18 metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, as the stewards of federal transportation funding at the regional level. They scoured the guidance statements and performance measures of the MPOs’ long-range transportation plans for language indicating a concern for public health.

All 18 agencies included at least two components of transportation’s public health effects in their plans’ guidance statements: accessibility and traffic safety. Air quality appeared in 11 statements and physical activity in seven. Ten mentioned “public health” or “human health” in general.

Only 11 agency plans had health-related performance measures, with nine mentions for each of traffic safety, air quality and accessibility, and four mentions for physical activity.

While the inclusion of public health language in guidance statements indicates a desire to address the issue, it’s only the first step, Singleton said. The research team included performance measures for a fuller picture of what’s getting done.

“It’s great to have goals and objectives of a plan, but performance measures are a good way to make plans accountable, responsive to those goals,” he said.

“It’s one way to make sure they just aren’t plans that get shoved on a shelf.”

Singleton said he could see the research being useful to MPO staff setting out on plan updates. Advocates for including public health in transportation planning could also use the research for guidance.

Faced with a planner or policymaker reluctant to recognize the myriad health effects from transportation, such as asthma, obesity and lung cancer, a health advocate could point to the language and practices of other agencies included in the research.

“When someone’s at the table saying ‘Health isn’t a transportation goal; we don’t have control over health from a transportation aspect,’ this maybe gives examples to draw on,” Singleton said.

Download the research paper or presentation poster.

Read more of our TRB coverage.

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