Recently, the American Public Health Association4 interviewed public health professionals about the transportation profession and transportation professionals about public health professionals (Finkelstein, 2011). The results were not encouraging, said James Corless, director of Transportation for America,5 a coalition of more than 400 organizations working to promote a new national transportation policy that is smarter, safer, and cleaner and provides more choice. Public health experts made statements such as “transportation planners’ emphasis is on moving cars, not people,” and “it’s common for planners to say they’ll ‘improve the roadways,’ when all they’re doing is widening the road, which creates more barriers to other modes of transportation, forcing more people into cars, and creating a future need to widen the road.” Meanwhile, transportation planners characterized public health advocates as “unrealistic,” “mostly benign and somewhat naïve and uneducated about ‘the way things are,’” and “heavy-handed in pushing their agenda and demanding things to be done their way.”
The transportation and public health professions are at almost opposite ends of a spectrum in terms of not only what they do but also how they think, said Corless. Transportation is a field with little regulation. The federal transportation program gives money to state departments of transportation and lets them decide what to do with it. Transportation planners resist even applying to transportation projects useful techniques such as health impact assessment—which could potentially expedite projects or garner more funding if the results were positive—because they believe “it is simply another box to check,” Corless commented.
However, the transportation profession has slowly been changing, said Corless, and change will be accelerated in the future because the profession is in a state of crisis. A lack of money is one prominent reason, but so is a lack of political support for projects the profession wants to undertake.
An emphasis on safety, which is a core mission of the transportation profession, is gradually changing the way transportation planners think. Corless quoted a recent statement from the Institute of Traffic Engineers6: “Neighborhood streets need to be designed to reduce traffic speeds. … Rather than adapting children to traffic, the traffic environment can be adapted to accommodate children” (Jacobsen et al., 2000, p. 73). Similarly, by a significant margin, Americans say that safer streets should be the primary objective of increased infrastructure support: in a 2011 poll,