By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is taking a "healthy" approach to planning transportation options for state residents.
Earlier this fall, MassDOT Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Richard Davey directed all department divisions to apply a new policy when planning state transportation projects: They must increase bicycling, walking or the use of public transit. Davey’s directive was the latest step toward achieving statewide objectives in MassDOT’s sustainability initiative known as "GreenDOT," which calls for tripling the share of travel in Massachusetts via bicycling, public transit and walking by 2030.
It also calls for MassDOT to develop a guide for community planners to use when creating shared-use paths on or along former railroad corridors.
"This policy directive is the next step in putting into daily practice our commitment to build a healthy, sustainable transportation system that meets all our customers’ needs," Davey said in September.
Now, all MassDOT divisions that review proposed transportation projects must incorporate public transit, bicycle paths or pedestrian walkway options during the project design phase, says Steve Woelfel, MassDOT's director of strategic planning.
In the past, transportation alternatives typically weren't considered until later in the planning process or after a project was completed, if at all, Woelfel says.
"It's not rocket science, it's just changing the way people have done things for years," he says.
MassDOT leaders have been examining the connection between transportation and its impact on public health for some time. In 2009, a major transportation bill passed that included a "Healthy Transportation Compact," which called for state agencies to implement state and federal policies and programs in ways that support healthy transportation.
"Basically, the compact says the work we do on transportation [projects] has a big impact on the health of our people," says Woelfel. "Certainly, there are health benefits to having people bike and walk more. And often there is a connection to public transit if you ride your bike or walk to the station."
Davey's recent directive helps carry out the compact, as well as the GreenDOT sustainability plan.
MassDOT also has promoted the transportation-public health connection by hosting an annual conference on the topic. This year's "Moving Together" conference, held Oct. 23 in Boston, featured state officials and representatives of the transportation, health care, environment, housing and economic development sectors who discussed how infrastructure investments foster communities' economic growth, as well as healthier populations.
According to Woelfel, one recent example of how an investment in healthy transportation helped a community's economy occurred this summer when the Cape Flyer operated weekend rail service between Boston and Cape Cod.
The rail service successfully encouraged tourists to visit the Cape without taking their cars, which helped reduce auto traffic congestion. The service made enough of a difference that MassDOT and the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority announced last month they will support the weekend summer rail service on a permanent basis, and MassDOT plans to study the possibility of year-round service on the line.
Massachusetts' transportation officials aren't alone in pursuing healthy transportation policies and investments. Increasingly, communities and organizations around the United States are looking into the effects of transportation on public health, according to an article posted in May on the Federal Highway Administration's website. Besides the impact walking and bicycling can have on lowering the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, transportation-related pollution can exacerbate respiratory ailments and other public health concerns, the article notes.
"Where transportation infrastructure is designed to accommodate or even encourage non-motorized transportation, such as through complete streets policies, it can have a positive effect on public health," the article states.
At the same time, healthy transportation initiatives that involve alternatives such as bicycling, walking and taking public transit face political opposition among some policymakers around the country at local, state and federal levels. One example: During the debate over the federal MAP-21 transportation legislation last year, some members of Congress called for slashing federal funding of transit and opposed using federal dollars for bike paths and pedestrian walkways.
But at MassDOT, the healthy transportation directive will continue to advance, according to Woelfel.
"You can tell that we are trying to be better stewards of the environment and our people," he says.
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