Public Health and Transportation

Date posted: 
Wednesday, December 30, 2015 - 16:45
Blog poster: 
Ken Runkle, REHS/RS
Email of Blog Poster: 

After more than 20 years working for a state department of public health and teaching in the field of environmental health, I accepted a position in the environmental coordination unit within a state department of transportation.

How could you leave public health?

I was asked this many times as I made the transition to my new position, but I did not really feel like I had left public health at all. I had just experienced a change of venue.

Though human health is not a purpose or need identified as part of a transportation project, policy and the implementation of transportation projects can impact public health. For example, the final geometry of a project can encourage or discourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic, thus affecting opportunities for exercise and recreation.  The selected alternative for a project may have community noise impacts that may or may not be mitigated by noise barriers.  Even something as simple as the design of exit ramps on expressways can improve traffic flow, which can reduce negative air quality impacts.

Transportation agencies are changing procedures that result in the more judicious use of salt and other de-icing agents on winter roads. This not only reduces costs for the agency, but improves water quality by reducing impacts to groundwater and surface water.

In addition, there is the concept of safety. Injuries related to motor vehicles are a leading cause of death among persons ≤ 44 years of age in the U.S.  Safer design is an important aspect of transportation projects.  Though having zero injuries and deaths is an unreachable goal, reductions in these numbers are reasonably achievable.

Transportation agencies are becoming more and more aware of the relationship between their work and public health. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation convened the Health in Transportation Working Group to:

  • Develop a common understanding of health in transportation;
  • Identify aspects of existing USDOT programs that relate to health; and
  • Address stakeholder's health-related concerns and communicate these concerns within the agency.

Transportation agencies also are keenly aware that about a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. As a result, long-term planning efforts are considering ways to reduce these emissions.

If managed effectively, all these aspects of public health in the realm of transportation systems have the potential to reduce impacts and improve human health.


Ken Runkle

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect the policy, endorsement, or action of NEHA or the organization where the author is employed. NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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