Tag Archives: Transportation

Transit Policy Gets Moving in Columbia, Missouri with Help from HIA

By Jason Wilcox

“Believe it or not, when I started working on transit, I had hair.”

Mayor Bob McDavid of Columbia, Missouri, joked about the stressful discussions surrounding the city’s public transit system. The conversations kept circling back to whether the financial impact of public transit was positive or negative. City representatives and pro-public transit groups searched for ways to keep the transit system economically feasible, while many opponents wondered why the city continued to subsidize what they saw as a non-essential service.

To take a new approach, in 2013 a Health Impact Assessment was conducted, providing an opportunity to present information through a health lens – not the usual frame for discussing public transit. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services focused the HIA on the potential impacts of expanding the public transit system on physical activity, mobility and access to jobs, health care, employment, and social capital.

With the release of the HIA, transit policy started moving. Within three months, Columbia Transit presented a draft of a new, budget-neutral public transit system, COMO Connect. The new system would feature neighborhood routes, as recommended by the HIA, ensuring access to essential services. New routes would run near large employers, health care facilities, and stores that offered healthy food options. After a year of public input, COMO Connect began running the new routes on August 4, 2014.

After completion of the initial HIA, a subsequent assessment was performed to focus on the potential health impacts of a transportation utility fee to help fund COMO Connect. The fee would be tacked on to residents’ utility bills, allowing them to ride the bus without paying a fare. The assessment found that the additional fee could hurt low-income households. Interviews with local residents discovered that many in the community already go without food or medical care due to high utility bills. This potential funding source is still being considered by the City, with a likely vote in 2016.

The completed HIAs have not only strengthened existing partnerships between the health department and community organizations, but have also allowed for the creation of new relationships. The interest in HIAs continues to grow in the community, with various City departments choosing to approach issues from a health perspective. The value of seeking out changes that impact the City’s overall landscape and infrastructure, as well as changes that positively impact citizen health, is becoming clearer.

Jason Wilcox is a Senior Planner with the Columbia/Boone County Dept. of Public Health & Human Services in Columbia, Missouri.


The California Department of Healthy and Equitable Transportation

Driving makes me sick.

It makes everyone sick. I’m not just talking about the frustration of a lengthy commute on crowded freeways, or the road rage when a driver cuts in front of you without signalling.

Driving means dirty, unhealthy air, leading to a host of ills for drivers and the communities they traverse: asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, premature mortality, pre-term birth and premature death. Driving creates noise pollution, which can lead to sleep loss, annoyance and stress. It results in collisions with other cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.

So why is the California transportation agency, Caltrans, so strongly focused on building new freeways, on moving too many cars from one place to another, and on short-term solutions to congestion that are quickly overwhelmed by ever-increasing numbers of cars?

Imagine if Caltrans became the California Department of Healthy and Equitable Transportation – if its mission were transformed to responsibility not only for getting people from place to place, but doing so in a way that promoted the health and well being of individuals, communities, society, and the planet.

Those questions came to mind after I read a scathing report released recently by the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin that will be further examined by the state Senate Transportation Committee in a hearing Tuesday.

The report says Caltrans has “a mission, vision, and goals not well-aligned with current conditions or demands,” “a portfolio of skills and practices that do not match modern demands,” and “managerial systems and practices that are inadequate to motivate staff and to hold them accountable, and to foster innovation.”

Joel Rogers, one of the authors of the report, told The Sacramento Bee: Caltrans “is still acting too much as your highway department, not your mobility department.”

What if Caltrans changed its focus to people and to the long term? What if it focused on helping people in all our communities get access to the opportunities they need to live healthy lives? On getting people from place to place in ways that improve their health and well-being? On finding solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we can curb climate change? On promoting walking, biking and public transit – long-term solutions that are cheaper, cleaner and healthier?

Caltrans also needs to change its planning practices. Instead of developing so-called solutions at their desks and then trying to sell them to the community, Caltrans staff could see themselves as facilitators. They could work more closely with the community, incorporate community knowledge, expertise, and desires along with subject matter expert opinion, and facilitate a consensus based on innovative and targeted solutions. That’s the way we at HIP approach Health Impact Assessments – not as an exercise in top-down expertise, but bottom-up community participation. It works.

Caltrans is the agency California has charged with building, maintaining and running our transportation systems. It’s time that mission was expanded to include providing people with what they need to live healthy lives.