TOD and Public Health

Rail-Volution Recap Part 3: TOD and Quality of Life

Apologies to all should I butcher any of the following, but the intricacies of transportation and Federal policy are new to me, but quite fascinating in the way they inform urbanism.

A Rail-Volution 2010 Plenary Session

Transportation planning has been too often been an end onto itself. For many years, transportation planners were (are) focused on efficiency as measured by the number of trips taken and speed of service.  Starting in the mid 20th Century, planning saw the automobile as a panacea for any transportation ailment; that is, until the roadways became so congested that the automobile created its own planning problems that it could no longer solve. It is true, efficiency (and I use this term in its quantifiable sense), should be an important metric; however, the funders of transit are realizing that qualifiable measurements are as -- or even more -- important.

A New Portland Park Adjacent to Transit

As an example in the emerging thinking, Federal funding mechanisms for rail transit, are being re-evaluated using a more holistic approach, one that includes quality of life as one of transit planning's highest goal. Historically, Federal grants have used a ‘one size fits all’ approach that uses the same criteria to award monies, regardless of geographical location or accounting for the externalities that often inform transit planning, such as public and environmental health or economic development. Because Federal funding is key to most all transit projects, the funding criteria (as enumerated in grant applications) have a huge impact on the design of transit, with its aforementioned traditional metrics stunting its opportunities in promoting quality of life. Applicants (transit agencies) are often forced to make ill-informed decisions that ignore leveraging transit investments in order to achieve other policy ends. Local knowledge and priorities of improving livability are sanitized or excluded, due to the Feds over-simplification of criteria to be those that can only be quantified. This results in many of the real benefits of transit remaining untapped (for instance, the improved pedestrian realm and its health benefits that usually accompanies transit corridor improvements may not factor into award criteria). Such myopic evaluation criteria is, of course, neither unique to Federal transit funding. Single or simplified criteria are easier to justify under scrutiny than those that are derivative of a policy, even when the derived benefits exceed the stated (applied for) goals of the project. This evolution of thinking, to include the many benefits of transit,  is exhibited in new Obama Administration directives such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative, that endeavor to see the linkages of the interactions of various federal departments and how their policies effect each other, promoting inter-agency coordinated in order to leverage common goals that may have previously been unidentified between departments. New questions are being raised, such as the FTA asking ‘What are the goals of the transit project, besides moving people’. How should local knowledge of health, employment, and environmental criteria be incorporated into and shape the basis of funding proposals?  Basic questions that should be asked, yet traditionally neither asked nor valued. Wording from the above mentioned directive:

[This] Partnership was conceived to coordinate Federal housing, transportation and environmental investments, protect public health and the environment, promote equitable development, and help address the challenges of climate change. Recognizing the fundamental role that public investment plays in achieving these outcomes, the [Obama] Administration charged three agencies whose programs most directly impact the physical form of communities—HUD, DOT, and EPA—to lead the way in reshaping the role of the Federal government in helping communities obtain the capacity to embrace a more sustainable future.


By uniting theses two departments and one agency, the current administration is embracing the full possibilities presented by everything transit advocates have been lobbying for for decades.

A New Portland Park Adjacent to Transit

To many of us in the transit advocacy community (and increasingly to its funders) transit symbolizes more that rail or bus. It has become synonymous with other alternative (to the automobile) means of transportation, including walking and cycling. Both of this activities not only require no additional funding beyond the initial investment, but  also promote health, and are accessible means of exercise to all, regardless of income. What is exciting is that the health promoted by such activities can now be related in quantifiable means, satiating the appetite of planners for numerical data. One evaluate tool available is provided by the San Francisco Department of Public Health:  The Healthy Development Measurement Tool (, an on-line aid for evaluating healthful development practices. This tool has been used by municipalities such as the Denver Housing Authority to aid in their urban development projects, including TOD (Transit Oriented Development). The thinking is that transit promotes walking and cycling in several ways. First, getting to urban stations usually requires walking or cycling. Oftentimes rail corridor construction involves the redevelopment of the street cross section the tracks are set on, with the new section having enhanced sidewalks and bike lanes. Second, the compact, full service developments fostered by TOD makes walking or cycling the easiest way to get a destination,  including places of employment.  Years of research have shown the link between better sidewalks and bikeways in promoting walking and cycling. Given the nation's obesity epidemic, even the 15 minutes of walking or cycling a day goes a long way in promoting better health.

What is terribly exiting about this linking of transit and health is that it allows a robust campaign to be launched that includes powerful allies typically outside the circles of transit advocacy, such as physicians, nurses, and insurance companies; all who have a powerful voice in public policy. It also appeals to families, and especially women, who are generally the steward of their families well-being.  Healthful also better defines what quality of life means, an often ineffable term. Health is without question the cornerstone of quality of life, and a goal few can argue with.

Next Time: Partnerships Between Communites, Government, and Private Development.