Using Equitable Transportation Investments to Support Healthy and Prosperous Communities

Where we put transportation investments has such an enormous impact on communities economic and health outcomes.

For example, low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately face conditions that contribute to higher rates of asthma related pollution due to living in neighborhoods located near busy highways and bus depots. Limited access to sidewalks and dedicated paths for biking and walking also make physical activity extremely dangerous and deadly. Moreover, as a result of declining physical activity, rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are much higher in these communities.

The Transportation Equity Caucus has recognized that federal, state, and local transportation investments must be leveraged to yield better health outcomes for low-income people, communities of color, and other disadvantaged groups. In Fall 2014, we hosted a national tele-conference to explore new local and regional efforts to incorporate health equity in the transportation planning process.  Here’s what we learned from our conversation with health equity advocates leading this work:

  • Challenges exist to embedding a health equity frame in transportation;
  • new tools are being developed to help connect local leaders to data on health equity and transportation; and
  • having communities of color and low-income people at the decision-making table is an important strategy for embedding health equity in transportation.


Overcoming challenges to embedding health equity in transportation planning

In Portland Oregon, Upstream Public Health, a member of the Transportation Equity Caucus, is working with TriMet— the regional public transit agency to identify health related indicators that should be used to assess the impact of investments on equity. This would require a monumental shift in how the agency prioritizes its investments. Nonetheless, Upstream and other advocates are committed to continuing to engage and assist TriMet in realigning its goals and normalizing the focus on who will benefit from investments rather than simply focusing only on how much it will cost to make investments that prioritize health and transit equity.

A similar narrative is true for Circulate San Diego— a coalition of local interests groups— in Southern California. Circulate is working to shape the region’s first transportation bill to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Reducing GHG emissions is important for communities of color who have historically been disproportionately exposed to pollutants that increase greenhouse gases. It is important that equity partners like Circulate are at the table to ensure policies that mitigate climate change do so equitably. For this reason Circulate and its partners have developed the Healthy People and Economy Scenario which prioritizes equity, health, and economic opportunity. Specifically, the scenario illustrates how prioritization of investments in walking, biking, and transit in communities of concern can help communities across the region meet greenhouse gas emission goals and improve overall economic and health outcomes for communities. This scenario is one of three being considered, and advocates are hopeful that the scenario will be adopted.

New tools are developed to connect health equity and transportation

Health impact assessments are being used increasingly to assess the potential for proposed state and local transportation policies and projects to advance health equity.  In addition, new tools that connect health equity and transportation help advocates illustrate to planners and leaders the impact that investments may have on promoting healthy and thriving communities of opportunity.

For example, in Nashville, Tennessee, Conexion Americas and Transportation for America are developing a planning tool that will increase the capacity of the metropolitan planning organization to make investments that lead to positive health outcomes, especially for low-income residents and people of color. This tool will help forecast the impact of potential plans on regional health outcomes like obesity and chronic illnesses as well as quality of life, and access to jobs and services. A similar tool, the UrbanFootprint, is also being developed by TransForm for use in major regions throughout California.

Bringing communities of color and low-income people to the transportation decision-making table

Regional planning bodies and transportation agencies are organizing advisory committees to enable equity advocates a seat at the table in the decision-making process. These committees, however, are only helpful in advancing health equity to the extent that planners allow input and guidance gleamed from them to shape decision-making.  Nonetheless, advisory committees remain an opportunity for advocates and community members to provide input and guidance on how potential plans and investments can lead to outcomes that help create healthy and thriving communities for all, especially low-income communities and communities of color. Two examples include:

  • Portland: TriMet’s Transit Equity and Access Advisory Committee provides a formal space for discussion of equity and is an opportunity for the agency to explore how to insert a health equity frame in all of their decisions. The committee also provides a forum for review and discussion of TriMet’s progress in embedding equity in services and planning.
  • Nashville: the regional transit authority is also turning to its Citizens Advisory Committee for feedback and recommendations to help ensure its proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) project benefits all. The advisory committee was developed as a vehicle for ensuring all community interests are represented in planning and investments made around the proposed BRT.


So much great work is underway across the country to ensure transportation investments promote healthy, safe, and inclusive communities, and equitably focus on results. This lays an important foundation for using our transportation investments to improve health outcomes for all.

Equity advocates will be watching to see the impacts that these steps have on improving health outcomes.