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Walking and Biking Key to Reversing U.S. Childhood Obesity Epidemic
Programs like Safe Routes to School create a constituency for better infrastructure for all. Photo by Transportation for America.

Programs like Safe Routes to School create a constituency for better infrastructure for all. Photo by Transportation for America.

Last Thursday, PolicyLink, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Transportation for America hosted a roundtable, “Keeping Kids Moving,” on how equitable transportation policy can prevent childhood obesity.  These organizations, and the Convergence Partnership, are “compelled by the knowledge that where you live truly matters for your health.”  It was an excellent event, with an unusually diverse audience that included doctors, nutritionists, transportation researchers, obesity experts, advocates and more. (Watch a video of the event here.)

As one of the first speakers, Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, talked about the need for a “health in all policies” approach to public health.  While this may sound simple (and an excellent approach), it is not something that most U.S. departments of transportation (DOTs) or metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) view as part of their mandate.  Despite the fact that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an Environmental Impact Assessment that includes human health, the practice of conducting Health Impact Assessments for transportation projects is not common.

SMARTER FUNDING AND LEGISLATION

Martha Coven, special assistant to the president, in charge of the Office of Mobility and Opportunity at the White House Domestic Policy Council, talked about how with “squeezed and shrinking resources” we need to make smarter use of the funding and resources we have, including local, state and federal “latitude” to make changes.  This is an important note, as current federal law allows states to flex a significant portion of federal highway funds into other programs, like transit, and allows highway funds to be used for bicycle and walking infrastructure on highway facilities, without requiring any special action.  Yet, most states spend a tiny portion of their federal funds on projects that promote walking, biking and transit (I include transit here because most transit trips contain at least one walking or biking segment and can be instrumental in maintaining a healthy weight.)

All of the speakers representing the Obama Administration had positive things to say about the HUD-DOT-EPA partnership, which TheCityFix has covered extensively.  DOT’s blog coverage of the event pointed to three programs that help advance better transportation for health: the Sustainable Communities Partnership, TIGER grants and Safe Routes to School.  Each of these is important in laying the groundwork for shifting funding and improving the public perception of walking and biking.  However, as model for transportation reauthorization legislation, these discretionary initiatives and competitive grants are not a foundation for an improved and equitable transportation system.  We need to move away from considering transit, bicycling and walking to be discretionary, or worthy only of competitive funds — a test which highway expansion is not required to pass.

LOW COST, LOW CARBON = BETTER FOR YOUR HEALTH

The upcoming surface transportation reauthorization must treat these modes as required elements of transportation system and fund them accordingly.  The way Adetokunbo Omishakin, director of Healthy Living Initiatives at the Office of the Mayor in Nashville, Tenn.,  framed it was that if walking and biking are supposed to be of equal value – to our communities, to the nation – then we cannot continue to fund them at the current level: approximately 2-5% of overall federal transportation funding.  I’d go one step further and say that if we want better transportation options, all modes need to be considered equal, by receiving both formula and discretionary/grant funding.  Perhaps calling walking, biking and transit “alternative modes” is actually part of the problem.  Perhaps we should be calling these modes “low cost, low carbon,” because that’s what they are.  They are only “alternative” so long as we keep edging them out of the funding system.  It’s like calling vegetarianism an “alternative” lifestyle – it might have been 20 years ago, but now it is a common, healthy option that many people use, making it no longer an “alternative” in the way many Americans use the term.

Audience member Barbara McCann of the Complete Streets Coalition explained a variation on the idea that the increasing use of low cost, low carbon modes can create additional public health benefits.   Barbara said that when there are more bicyclists and walkers, drivers “see them more…and hit them less.”  A very direct, and good, example of how a positive change on one front – increasing active transportation – can create a positive change on another front – bicycle and pedestrian safety.  And really, that’s what the entire day was about: leveraging transportation to create positive outcomes for more people.

Encapsulating the breadth of these ideas, my favorite thought of the day came from Roy Kienitz, who said that childhood obesity is a “beautiful reason” to do the things with transportation we should be doing for so many other reasons. If left unchecked, the “hidden health costs” of transportation will continue to undermine the country’s economy and quality of life.  Essentially, if we’re not going to promote a great transportation system for economic development, air quality, climate change or equity, let’s at least do it so that our children aren’t so fat that we can’t have a decent army in the future.  Or that we can’t have a we can’t have a thriving workforce. Or, as I like to say, transportation reform is the best kind of health care reform.

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