Transportation contributes significantly to urban air pollution. It also has the potential to be a key driver for improving air quality. Analysis of your region’s transportation options provides insights for planners on how and where to intervene to improve air quality in transportation.
New tools are available to asses health impacts in the transportation sector. They can help quantify the health impacts of various options. They are valuable contributions to local transit discussions for choosing transportation plans that support the long-term health and safety of residents.
In addition to improving long-term health impacts, investments in active and public transit have immediate positive health benefits due to reductions in local air pollution and improving the comfort and health of residents.
Tools for health and transportation planning include the Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT), Air Q+, GreenUR, iTree, and the Integrated Transport and Health Impact Modelling Tool (ITHIM). Tools and Toolkits provided by the World Health Organization provide additional resources. Some of these tools are available now. A few will be available shortly. And, all as a set can be used to build an investment case for your region to build transportation plans that improve public health outcomes.
Integrated Sustainable Transport and Health Assessment Tool
The Integrated Sustainable Transport and Health Assessment Tool (iSThAT) is a software tool for the evaluation of the health and economic benefits of carbon reduction measures in the context of urban transportation. It is an Excel-based tool for evaluating carbon mitigation alternatives in surface transportation. It is designed for informational and educational purposes. It is intended for use by local authorities, including their advisers and technical staff, regulators, urban planners, private and public enterprises, nongovernmental organizations, and educators. It was recently tested and the first release will be available in 2023 for download.
The Health Economic Assessment Tool
The Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) allows transportation planners to factor health benefits into transport economic assessments. Although originally developed for transportation planners, it has also been useful to other professional specialties such as health economists who are interested in reducing health care costs. HEAT has been thoroughly vetted through consensus and has been used in at least thirty scientific publications. Since its launch in 2014, it has been used by over a million users.
Air Q+ estimates the effects of short-term changes in air pollution and the effects of long-term exposures to air pollution. It can be used by cities or regions to estimate how much of a particular health effect is attributable to selected air pollutants. It has pre-loaded datasets for the relative risks for selected pollutant health end-points, conversion factors between PM2.5 and PM10 at the national level, and fuel use statistics.
Green Space Infrastructure
Green spaces improve air quality and health impacts. They are most impactful when integrated into the spaces where people live and work, including as barriers in transportation systems. Different types of plants provide different kinds of filtration, so a variety of plant types and leaf sizes should be included. Plant selections should be reflective of native, local vegetation.
Plants can be used as replacements for physical barriers in transit systems. They can provide buffers between transportation lanes and homes. Trees can be incorporated into parking lots and as coverings over roads to reduce urban heat island effects. They can be included as coverings for active transit corridors to make pedestrian and bike lanes more pleasant.
Tools for quantifying and planning urban green space such as iTree and GreenUR are options for city planners and advocates working to expand green infrastructure. GreenUR is a plug-in for QGIS, a free and open-source geographic information system, for the quantification of the impacts of green spaces at an urban scale. iTree is a tool developed by USDA Forest Service designed to set priorities for more effective green space decision-making.
The most common challenges in expanding active and public transportation include:
- Limitations in the technical capacity for regional teams to use these tools effectively,
- The difficulty of city planning teams to coordinate between either department within a region or across a larger region
- Barriers to financing infrastructure improvements.
It can take some technical capacity to use some of these tools, sometimes technicians in cities don’t know how to use the tools. Improvements in external support to assist city technicians in using these tools for regional planning purposes would be helpful as would increase support for peer-to-peer learning.
More communication and more effective collaboration is often needed between departments such as local level planners, federal level planners, and ministers of health to coordinate adequately to make these structural improvements. Interventions need to be designed in a broad scaled way, not just correcting a single problem such as making walkways and bikeways to be safe and comfortable.
Designs for health in the transit sector need to be done in iterative cycles of planning, decision-making, and implementation. Repeating analysis and design modifications are important to improve systemizations to meet changing population needs with repeated monitoring and evaluation. Multisector community building includes input from across departments, such as transportation, health, and finance working together builds more effective transportation. Holding gatherings of the stakeholders in each geographic community can help to facilitate collaboration among different departments.
Building an Investment Case
Shifting transport modes from car to public and active transit improves public health. Traffic congestion is an active contributor to air pollution and although cities recognize that traffic congestion is an inconvenience. There is a common misconception that simply adding more lanes for cars will ameliorate the situation. It won’t. We need to shift the load from cars to active and public transit. To implement this city planners, transport planners, and health ministers need to work together in multidisciplinary collaborations to design adaptive transportation plans for their cities to meet health goals.
Building an investment case for active and public transit is an essential step in health and transit planning. Plans to make regional infrastructure need to demonstrate the cost benefits of these changes to qualify for financing. The financing systems don’t often account for the health impacts of transportation planning. So, in preparation for these plans both health impacts and cost-benefit analysis needs to be included to build an investment case for non-motorized transport.
These multisector economics are complex and each intervention has its own cost, so financing can be a big issue. Banks want to make money-based decisions so funding city initiatives that are based on health can be difficult. These tools help make an investment case to fund the implementation and importantly, the maintenance of municipal infrastructure that improves the mobility and comfort of residents. The Urban Public Health Initiative provides support and guidance for city planners in navigating the process of health and transportation planning.