July 2013

Driving better health through transportation

In the world of transportation, the focus is most often on creating mobility and accessibility. But according to Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger, transportation also plays a major role in creating health. Delivering the keynote address at the 24th Annual CTS Transportation Research Conference, Ehlinger told the crowd, “Transportation is around us every day and influences everything we do, which makes it integral to creating the conditions for great health.”

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As an example of the many ways health and transportation are intertwined, Ehlinger shared a list of community indicators for health and quality of life, including access to recreation, access to healthy foods, access to medical services, and access to public transit—all of which have clear ties to transportation.

Transportation-related environmental factors such as air quality are also related to public health: vehicles create about half of all air pollution, and poor air quality leads to public health problems like asthma and lung cancer.

On the other hand, transportation also has historically been a major contributor to public health improvements, according to Ehlinger. “In the 20th century, Americans added 30 years to their life expectancy; 25 of those added years have been linked to public health accomplishments, including transportation-related improvements such as vehicle safety advances and increased seat belt use.”

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However, in recent years, gains in longevity have leveled off. “Chronic disease has become the leading cause of death, but instead of focusing on prevention we are investing about 95 percent of our resources into medical care,” he said.

To continue improving health in the 21st century while also getting health care costs under control, Ehlinger advocates the concept of health in all policies. “Health in all policies takes a collaborative approach to health by integrating health considerations into policymaking and programming across all sectors, and transportation is a key part of that.”

Promisingly, recent transportation trends offer tremendous opportunities for public health improvements. Transportation safety initiatives aimed at eliminating crash-related deaths and serious injuries, such as the Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths program, have led to a marked decline in traffic fatalities during the past decade.

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In addition, the number of vehicle miles being driven in the United States is dropping, and young people are leading that trend. “If we drive fewer miles, we will reduce the likelihood of obesity. The question is whether this trend will reverse or continue, and that is largely up to the transportation community,” said Ehlinger.

“Transportation is in the midst of transformational change … from a model that moves cars to a model that moves people through a safe, accessible, and affordable system,” said Ehlinger. “This is our opportunity to reshape the transportation system and create the infrastructure we need while also improving our health and quality of life."

Following Ehlinger's presentation, a panel of experts discussed the possible impacts of the “health in all policies" concept on the transportation community (see related article).