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We Can't Drill or Drive Our Way to Health

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Viewers of the recent presidential debates could logically conclude that the American people have only one overriding transportation goal: cheap, plentiful gasoline. Sure, the candidates' appeals held a bit more nuance than "drill, baby, drill," with brief mentions of renewable energy and impacts of oil dependence on our foreign policy interests, but the fundamental message was the same: when it comes to transportation, we're going to do everything we can to protect the status quo.

Really? There's no room to mention public transportation or ways to make our streets pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly? These ideas may not be politically expedient, but the issues of climate change, injury and death on our roadways--along with rising rates of chronic disease--are real, and need to be front-and-center in discussions of transportation and energy policy. Right now, advocates in every state have an opportunity to do just that by pushing hard for large chunks of $100 billion in new transportation money to be used to promote walking, bicycling, and mass transit.

We know a lot about the ways a well-thought out transportation system can improve health and quality of life for all Americans, particularly youth, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Cities and towns can be redesigned to prevent injuries and chronic diseases. Our reliance on motor vehicles as the primary way to get around our cities and towns has contributed to motor vehicle crashes being among the top 5 causes of death (it's #1 for people ages 5-34). Too much time in our cars also contributes to high levels of inactivity and sedentary behavior among all people and most alarmingly children and youth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends regular physical activity to prevent and manage diabetes some forms of cancer and to counter depression. In Oklahoma City, Mayor Mick Cornett has responded to being dubbed one of the "fattest cities in America" by investing in bike lanes and walking paths and emphasizing good nutrition. The result: The city has collectively lost a million pounds.

A transportation system that's good for health is also good for the economy. A recent study found that projects that support the development of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure - bike lanes, sidewalks, and trails for example - created 46% more jobs than road-only infrastructure. We can create jobs while investing in sustainable infrastructure projects. What's more, a recent report showed that this type of infrastructure has driven local economic development by increasing residential and commercial property values. Light rail, clean natural gas buses, bike paths and safe walking routes also give people a range of options for moving around and in many cases at a fraction of the cost of owning, operating and fueling up a car. That can all add up to more money in our pockets and our communities. Congress recently authorized the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" (MAP 21) Act to support a true shift toward a 21st century transportation system. This bi-partisan bill provides each state in the nation with the opportunity to use federal transportation funds to support localities and communities in efficiently and effectively moving people and goods. That means that each state will be deciding whether to invest in proven initiatives such as Safe Routes to School or to use the full balance of their funds on highway maintenance and expansion. With all of the known benefits of a walkable and bikeable towns, why would we allow our state transportation dollars to just go into ‘business as usual' projects?

Protecting the environment is key to long-term sustainability. In California, advocates for public health, transportation and climate change are working together and with government agencies to establish forward-thinking, sustainable policies that encourage health and equity in existing programs. For example, the state passed legislation in 2008 to reduce pollutants and vehicle emissions in an attempt to address climate change and protect the environment. This has served as a basis for health and equity advocates to promote transportation and community planning decisions that facilitate physical activity, place housing closer to transit hubs, and reduce the need for families to rely on personal vehicles to get them where they need to go. A system focused on investments in public transportation, access and safety for people moving on foot and bike can reduce the burden and congestion on our roads and highways. States across the nation can leverage their existing transportation investments and decision-making processes to re-invent the way communities, agencies and organizations do business.

In this season of national agenda setting, it's critical to examine the questions we're asking. Are we only interested in where and how we get energy or also in how we use it and how to reduce our need? How can we reduce stress on the healthcare system while also creating jobs and spurring economic development? Investing our existing resources into building more trails, bikeways, sidewalks, and transit lines moves us toward a healthier and more sustainable approach to transportation. As a country, we can no longer afford to rely on short-sighted solutions--it's time to invest in transportation solutions that meet our social, physical and economic bottom lines.