The transportation sector is associated with multiple risk factors for public health. Exposure to air pollution from vehicles has been linked to increased mortality, cancer, lung ailments, and other health problems. Limited options to walk or bike have been shown to be a factor in obesity cases, which have reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Many of these impacts, asthma and obesity in particular, disproportionately affect children.

Recent studies and an emerging body of research have documented local, regional and national health impacts associated with our transportation system – adding costs to the national health care bill estimated in the billions of dollars. In addition, climate change, driven in part by carbon emissions from the transportation sector, is projected to exacerbate a variety of public health concerns.

Upcoming federal transportation legislation and infrastructure provisions in economic stimulus legislation are important opportunities to avoid and minimize these public health impacts and costs—particularly in an era of rising health care costs that have devastated many household budgets and threaten to overwhelm the federal budget.

To download Rails-to-Trails' Active Transportation for America report on benefits from bicycling and walking, including the health benefits presented in the briefing, visit

On December 3, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing to examine health impacts and costs associated with transportation in the United States. The briefing addressed how federal policies regarding transportation infrastructure, in addition to policies concerning vehicles and fuels, can play an important role in improving public health and reducing health care costs.

  • America is at a transportation crossroads. Americans live far from their jobs, infrastructure is crumbling, and we face risks from climate change and our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Poor transportation policy creates a preventable health crisis. Policy should address four key areas: built environment, safety, research, access and equity.
  • Regional air quality assessments miss localized exposure to pollution “hotspots” such as highways, ports and railyards.
  • A University of Southern California study found that living close to traffic brings increased risk of asthma and respiratory symptoms including reduced lung function in children.
  • Transportation officials need to address impacts of traffic-generated pollution by increasing buffer distance between highways and nearby homes and schools, reducing traffic volume, improving access to mass transit, and making smarter land use decisions.
  • The report Active Transportation for America quantified the benefits of bicycling and walking, including $400 million in annual fuel savings.
  • Currently, only 48 percent of Americans get the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days; active transportation (walking and biking) could increase that figure.
  • Travel behavior is modifiable. Peak-hour congestion pricing can be used to discourage driving, and the revenue can be used to build "complete streets" that accommodate different transportation modes. Other pricing mechanisms such as distance-based ("pay-as-you-drive") insurance would provide similar incentives.
  • Location efficient mortgages would help people afford property near public transit.
  • Impact fees on new development should be distance based, the further out the development the higher the impact fees.

Speaker Slides