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Driving Makes Me Sick

Driving Makes Me Sick

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By Jonathan Heller

Driving makes me sick.

 It makes everyone sick. I'm not just talking about the frustration of a lengthy commute on crowded freeways, or the road rage when a driver cuts in front of you without signalling.

 Driving means dirty, unhealthy air, leading to a host of ills for drivers and the communities they traverse: asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, premature mortality, pre-term birth and premature death. Driving creates noise pollution, which can lead to sleep loss, annoyance and stress. It results in collisions with other cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.

 So why is the California transportation agency, Caltrans, so strongly focused on building new freeways, on moving too many cars from one place to another, and on short-term solutions to congestion that are quickly overwhelmed by ever-increasing numbers of cars?

 Imagine if Caltrans became the California Department of Healthy and Equitable Transportation – if its mission were transformed to responsibility not only for getting people from place to place, but doing so in a way that promoted the health and well being of individuals, communities, society, and the planet.

Those questions came to mind after I read a scathing report released recently by the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin that will be further examined by the state Senate Transportation Committee in a hearing Tuesday, Feb. 11.

The report says Caltrans has "a mission, vision, and goals not well-aligned with current conditions or demands,” “a portfolio of skills and practices that do not match modern demands,” and “managerial systems and practices that are inadequate to motivate staff and to hold them accountable, and to foster innovation.”

Joel Rogers, one of the authors of the report, told The Sacramento Bee: Caltrans "is still acting too much as your highway department, not your mobility department."

What if Caltrans changed its focus to people and to the long term? What if it focused on helping people in all our communities get access to the opportunities they need to live healthy lives? On getting people from place to place in ways that improve their health and well-being? On finding solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we can curb climate change? On promoting walking, biking and public transit – long-term solutions that are cheaper, cleaner and healthier?

Caltrans also needs to change its planning practices. Instead of developing so-called solutions at their desks and then trying to sell them to the community, Caltrans staff could see themselves as facilitators. They could work more closely with the community, incorporate community knowledge, expertise, and desires along with subject matter expert opinion, and facilitate a consensus based on innovative and targeted solutions. That's the way we at Human Impact Partners approach Health Impact Assessments – not as an exercise in top-down expertise, but bottom-up community participation. It works. 

Caltrans is the agency California has charged with building, maintaining and running our transportation systems. It's time that mission was expanded to include providing people with what they need to live healthy lives.

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