The most basic forms of transportation are active ones—human powered. From early times to modern day, from childhood through old age, we walk first and last. Even today, when motorized transportation dominated by automobiles is the norm, we still begin and end every trip as a pedestrian. Bicycling, too, is a pretty basic form of transportation. Most of us as young children take our first step toward independence when we learn to ride a bicycle, giving us the power and freedom to travel farther and experience more. Bicycling is also equitable transportation—affordable and accessible to the masses.
Active transportation is healthy transportation. Whether walking or bicycling, pushing a long board or a wheelchair, travel modes that get people moving are the antidote to much of what ails us. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes and their related illnesses are the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States, and their root cause is lack of physical activity. Walk more, bike more, and drive less and your chances of dying from disease diminishes dramatically.
Why then, if basic, equitable forms of active transportation are also the healthiest, have we instead over most of the last 75 years engineered them almost entirely out of our cities, opting for cars instead? Fast cars, wide roads, and ample parking have allowed us to live farther from work and school and travel farther to do just about everything else. The resulting cityscapes are uncomfortable, at best, and unsafe or downright impossible, at worst, to navigate on foot or by bicycle.
In these sprawling cities and on the nationwide network of car-centric thoroughfares, where reducing delay and increasing speed for cars has been prioritized, the resulting system has not only reduced physical activity but in itself is killing people. Nearly 40,000 people a year die on our roads in the United States, and by any measure this is a public health crisis. Those who do make active transportation choices are the most vulnerable on our roads, with a reported rise in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.
In recent years, there have been focused efforts to correct the course. Complete Streets policies and walkable, mixed-use approaches to city planning are moving the needle in the right direction. Vision Zero is forcing us to look comprehensively and with new eyes at this safety crisis. But considerable work remains to overcome a generation or two of car-centrism to make transportation in our communities more active, safer, and healthier.
Often, we have referred to walking, bicycling, and forms of transportation other than private automobiles as “alternate modes.” I think it’s time we start referring to active transportation modes for what they are, our most basic and primary modes. Until we do that, we will struggle to give them the priority they deserve. And in order for people to make transportation choices that will improve their health, we must provide choices that are safe.
In January 2017, the ITE International Board of Directors identified transportation and health as a key focus area, creating a Task Force dedicated to furthering discussion and action within the transportation and health space. Chaired by Paula Flores, an ITE past president, the Transportation and Health Task Force is raising awareness with our members and the broader transportation profession around the importance of considering health impacts in all aspects of transportation. The Task Force recently adopted an action plan centered around a variety of short- and medium-term activities and has formed a technical working group, chaired by Tracy Shandor from Kimley Horn, with the charge to execute the activities identified in the plan over the next 12–18 months. Members can learn more on page 17 of this issue. Through these efforts, ITE’s Community of Transportation Professionals is equipped to lead the way in implementing solutions that improve the health of our communities while promoting safety across all modes.
This blog is taken from the President's Message found in the May 2018 issue of ITE Journal.