Monthly Archives: May 2010

New Study: “The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation”

A picture from our most recent brown-bag event in Allentown. The topic was "Bicycling in the Lehigh Valley."

I recently finished a class at Lehigh taught by State Representative Bob Freeman. The class, called Land Use Management and the Politics of Sprawl, really started me thinking about the interconnectedness of our transportation planning, the health of the public, and our land use patterns. One thing that is very clear to me after taking the class is our incredible dependence on cars. As someone who loves to drive and has always had a car, I found this realization rather humbling. The fact is, we have created a world in which we live on one island, work on a different island, and ‘play’ on various other islands. Meanwhile, the car–our boat– is the only way to get from one island to the next.

To travel to a store within one mile often requires a car trip. Of course we could hastily blame this on laziness, but it is more and more common for roads to be built without any consideration to pedestrian traffic. In class we discussed the effects of these trends and our discussions often brought us to issues of public health, wasted land, and economic distress. A recent study conducted by the American Public Health Association provides evidence of these effects and proposes that we look at transportation funding and planning through a very different lens.

The study, “The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation,” highlights the lack of consideration that is given to health costs in transportation planning. In other words, when decision-makers decide which transportation projects are priorities, they rarely take into account the health costs associated with the various options. As a result, we miss out on opportunities to fund transportation projects that are actually most efficient.

The current process by which transportation funding decisions are made generally does little to consider the long-term costs and benefits to health, safety and equity.Our systemof transportation investment has resulted in many benefits for the U.S. and its residents, but today’s growing, aging and urbanizing population has different needs and expectations for a transportation system.

The study outlines some of the health costs associated with transportation. They estimate the health costs of traffic crashes at $180 billion/year, the health costs of traffic pollution at $50-80 billion/year, and the health costs of obesity/overweight at $142 billion/year. Included in these estimates are various factors including direct health care costs, lost wages due to illness, injury, and disability, legal/administrative costs, quality of life, and premature death.

The study also includes three case studies: Traffic Safety Case Study, Air Pollution Case Study, and Physical Activity Case Study.

This study helps to frame the issue of transportation in the larger context of economic and environmental sustainability as the effects on public health. After Ray LaHood announced a change in transportation funding strategy this past January, this study should come as another nudge in the right direction.

What do you think of the study? Is there anything in particular that interests you? Any thoughts on how this type of information may help to reshape the debates around local transportation issues?

Transportation Committee Hearing in the Lehigh Valley, June 3

The PA House Transportation Committee has announced a series of seven hearings across the state to discuss the nearly $3.5 billion a year the state needs to maintain Pennsylvania’s existing highway, bridge and public transit systems. A hearing has been scheduled in the Lehigh Valley on Thursday, June 3 at 2 p.m. in the Commonwealth Room at DeSales University (University Center, 2755 Station Ave, Center Valley).

It is important that community members attend this hearing. A strong turnout will help show the importance of maintaining and improving the Lehigh Valley’s transportation network.

If you would like to know more information or if you have any questions, contact Amanda Wolfe, Transportation Committee Legislative Assistant, at (717) 783 – 1012 or awolfe@pahouse.net.

Note: Make sure to follow @renewlv on Twitter. We will be tweeting live from the hearing.

Federal Role in Revitalizing Older Communities

The Brookings Institition released a report last week by Alan Mallach (Senior Fellow) entitled Facing the Urban Challenge: The Federal Government and America’s Older Distressed Cities. The report focuses on the federal role in helping out former industrial powerhouses that have been losing populations and jobs since the end of World War II, triggered by “suburban flight, deindustrialization and automobile-oriented sprawl.”

While some cities have rebounded, others continue to struggle today. The report stresses that these cities should focus on the goals of: strengthening core areas by building on key assets, preserving viable residential neighborhoods and housing, and identifying long-term “non-traditional and green uses” for vacant/abandoned lots and buildings.

Mallach argues that the federal government needs to play a stronger role in passing policies that help distressed communities achieve these goals. His recommendations for the federal government include:

  • Providing support for new comprehensive planning efforts.
  • Helping cities plan and carry out land management strategies.
  • Pursuing opportunities for investment in transformative projects and already-established assets.
  • Expanding the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
  • Focusing on retaining middle income households within these cities.

Overall, the message that I received from the report is that there is an absence of a coherent strategy and lack of coordination on the federal level for assisting distressed municipalities. Federal policies that promote more comprehensive land-use planning (and reward regions that participate in such planning efforts) would go a long way in providing the tools that some of these municipalities need to bounce back.

You can read the full report on the Brookings website. If you’re interested in keeping up to date on all news related to land-use planning, make sure to join our e-mail list by visiting RenewLV’s Join Us page.

Pennsylvania Transportation: Higher gas tax could save you money?

Is there some way that raising the gas tax could actually save drivers money? According to this article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pittsburgh Section, the answer is ‘yes’.

Consider this math from Karl P. Sieg, vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pittsburgh section:

Various studies have placed the cost of damage to vehicles from rough roads at $300 to $400 per year. He has heard estimates as high as $750.

A 25-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax (or “user fee” as Mr. Sieg calls it) would raise more than $1.5 billion. For a driver who goes 15,000 miles a year at 25 miles per gallon, the annual cost would be $150.

“In other words, for less than half what we pay each year to repair the damage to our cars caused by worn-out roads, we could fix the roads,” he said. “Kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?”

It makes sense that if the roads are smoother and safer, there will be less wear-and-tear and accidents to cars. According to WFMZ coverage of the Pennsylvania’s infrastructure progress report,– prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers– the state’s roads received a D-, bridges received a C, and transit received a D-.  And what’s more, PennDOT says that the state has more structurally deficient bridges than ANY STATE in the country. Our number is 5,646.

While 25 cents per-gallon may seem like a drastic increase, consider the $1.5 Billion in new revenue, and the relatively low cost of $150 to drivers who spend about 15,000 miles  in a car each year. There are two clear benefits:

1. Closing the transportation funding gap
This revenue would provide enough money to cover the $450 million dollar transportation funding gap AND leave plenty of money to enhance our transit systems and get the state back on track in all of its infrastructure demands.

2. Save taxpayers money
Taxpayers are currently driving on damaged roads which causes unnecessary damage to vehicles over the course of a year. By repairing the roads, there would be less damage to the cars that travel on them. In other words, a tax at the pump actually saves a driver from annual repair costs.

The state is in the middle of a serious transportation crisis. In fact, the state has launched this website to explain the seriousness of the crisis. After seeing the extent of the state’s needs, consider whether or not raising the gas tax may be a relatively simple and inexpensive (for the taxpayers) way to create a sustainable funding source.

Is this line of thinking flawed? Is there anything that the American Society of Civil Engineers is missing?

Feel free to comment below.

Community Gardening in the Lehigh Valley Underway

Spring is certainly in full bloom in the Lehigh Valley and community gardening is in full swing.

The Express Times featured a story on the South Side Community Gardening Initiative that is underway within South Bethlehem. Part of Lehigh University’s SouthSide Initiative, the community gardens are yet another part of the effort to revitalize South Bethlehem.

The garden has been built at Ullman Park on Sassafras and Wyandotte streets. Plots at the garden can be purchased for a $10 upkeep fee and the gardener has a choice in what vegetables to plant.

The group’s co-founder and current director of the SouthSide Initiative John Pettegrew stated:

In the South Side, a lot of attention is drawn to steel, and rightfully so, but there is much more. We want to educate residents about native species and how to plant and work with soil so they can grow food for their own consumption.

To sign up for a plot, visit the SouthSide Community Gardens Sign-Up page, or if you would like to contact them directly, send an email at southsidecommunitygardens@gmail.com or call 570-540-0239 (after 5 p.m. if possible).

reminder: RenewLV Brown-Bag Session on Bicycling in the Lehigh Valley, Tomorrow

RenewLV’s next brown-bag session will be held TOMORROW, Friday, May 21st, 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. in the Community Room of Allentown Center Square, 15 North 7th Street, Allentown (entrance faces corner of 7th St and Hamilton St). The topic for this brown-bag session is Bicycling in the Lehigh Valley. Leaders from regional and state bicycling groups will discuss the opportunities and challenges that face the bicycling community in the Lehigh Valley. The session will include brief presentations from panelists, followed by plenty of time for discussion.

Our panel for this session is:

  • Steve Schmitt, Coalition for Appropriate Transportation (CAT)
  • John Schubert, Pennsylvania Pedalcycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee
  • John Sharpe, Bike Allentown

I hope you’ll bring a lunch (perhaps from one of the downtown dining establishments) and join us this Friday. RenewLV will be recording this session and making it available to listen on our website. Check out past brown-bag session recordings on RenewLV’s Multimedia page.

If you would like additional information, or have any questions about the event, feel free to contact Beata Bujalska at bbujalska@renewlv.org or 484-893-1062.

Have You Heard? It’s Election Day in PA.

Though I’m sure many of you have made it out to the polls already, make sure to go vote if you can today. Polls will stay open until 8pm tonight, so there is still plenty of time to make it out.

In case you are looking for some background information prior to heading out to vote, you can check out PoliticsPA’s Primary Preview, which gives an overview of all of the races and candidates. If you need to find out where to go vote, visit VotesPA.com.

Happy election day, Lehigh Valley.

State of Metropolitan America — How Does the Lehigh Valley Compare?

Last week, the Brookings Institution released its highly-anticipated report The State of Metropolitan America. The report focuses on major demographic factors that affect a metropolitan region — including Race & Ethnicity, Age, Income  & Poverty, and Commuting — and also groups the metro regions into a new typology “based upon metrics of population growth, diversity, and educational attainment as compared to national averages.”

The Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro region (which is different from the Lehigh Valley region, as the A-B-E region includes parts of Carbon County and Northern New Jersey) is labeled a Mid-Sized Magnet, characterized by High Growth, Low Diversity, and Low Education. The report states that the magnets have experienced “high growth, but exhibit lower shares of Hispanic and Asian minorities, and lower levels of educational attainment. These 15 mid-sized … locations got caught in the growth spiral of the 2000s that ended abruptly with the housing crash.” Interestingly, most of these magnets are located in the Southeast (many in Florida), which makes the A-B-E metro region characterization unique.

What does this label mean for our metro region, and, specifically, what does it mean for our cities? The report states:

Mid-Sized Magnet metro areas must seek greater economic balance in the wake of the housing crash. Smart infrastructure investments in these metro areas could promote growth of alternative energy production and distribution, international travel and tourism, and linkages with larger nearby centers of global commerce. Their leaders must also be fierce champions for the continued viability of 2- and 4-year higher education institutions, which offer the best hope for ensuring that their large and growing young, minority populations can share in the fruits of future economic growth.

Indeed, future economic growth must be stressed, and I would argue that it will be especially important to create more opportunities within our urban cores. I did a very quick-and-brief analysis, comparing data from the A-B-E region with data from other Mid-Sized Magnets, and discovered something very interesting and – dare I say – disturbing: the discrepancy between the median household income of the primary city (in our case, Allentown) and that of the suburbs is greater here than in any other magnet region. The median income in Allentown is a little over $39K, while the median income in the suburbs is over $62K.  Other magnet regions often did not have much of a discrepancy — while the gap in the A-B-E region is greater than $20,000.

Unfortunately, I cannot cover all topics of interest from this Brookings study within this post, but I invite you to visit the report site to explore the report in more detail. If you come across something particularly interesting in your exploring, make sure to share in our comments below.

Transportation solutions: Reactive vs. Proactive

It seems to me that we have two options when it comes to transporation. We can act reactively, always trying to fix yesterday’s transportation problems; or proactively, developing a plan that is economically and environmentally sustainable and will meet the needs of the public for years to come.

An article from Mobilizing the Region—an online news source providing ‘news and opinion from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’—critiques the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s (AASHTO) recent reports that call for increased capacity on our roads and highways across the country.

 AASHTO’s reports rely on the projected growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and population as the basis for their analysis. AASHTO suggests that the best way to deal with this need for more capacity is to expand roads and highways.  

In this critique, the authors contend that the expansion of roads is not the solution. They explain how VMT has actually “flat-lined” as a result of the gas price increase in 2008. Similarly, they explain that for AASHTO’s assessment and recommendations to be implemented, we would have to add 9,641 square miles of asphalt (not including parking lots and road-shoulders) by 2050. And what’s more, most of AASHTO’s recommendations are intended for urban areas. As the authors point out, these urban areas are the most ideal places for transit to thrive.

So, why is AASHTO advocating for the continued shortsighted solution of road expansion to deal with increased transportation demand? Let’s hope it is because all of their findings are based on the logic of this sentence: “All things being equal, more capacity (in relation to demand) means that the roadway is able to ‘absorb’ the effects of some events that would otherwise cause disruption.”

The authors explain why this statement is misleading:

Yes, “all things being equal” a wider road reduces congestion. But decades of research and experience have shown that things do not stay equal — road expansion is almost immediately followed by a steep increase in “induced traffic” as people make more and longer trips, and as development attracts more traffic. As traffic engineers say, “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” 

In the Lehigh Valley, we are dealing with a similar debate between those who believe that widening a road will solve our congestion issues, and those who advocate a multimodal approach to transportation planning. What is it that makes the widening of roads such an attractive option to so many, despite the proven long-term shortfalls? If transportation planners are going to readdress the same issue every several years and spend millions of dollars each time, doesn’t it make more sense to invest now in what is more economically sustainable?  Isn’t widening roads really just a reactive measure, when our focus should be on developing a proactive plan?

WDIY’s Lehigh Valley Discourse on Regional Public Health, Tonight at 6PM

Tonight’s show of Lehigh Valley Discourse on WDIY will have host Alan Jennings exploring the benefits of establishing a Lehigh Valley Health Department and the challenges ahead for the effort. A public health department would provide essential services such as: child and adult immunizations, cancer prevention services, education to promote better nutrition and physical activity, chronic-disease management and restaurant inspections.

The Lehigh Valley Board of Health — composed of 11 members jointly appointed by the two counties — has been developing a services plan and budget for a regional health department since January 2009. The Board’s planning phase, supported entirely by foundation grants, is expected to be completed in June 2010.

Guests on tonight’s show will be:

  • Dr. Eric Gertner, MD (Lehigh Valley Board of Health)
  • Ross Marcus (Northampton County Human Services)
  • Steven Bliss (RenewLV)

Tune into WDIY at 6pm tonight (5/13/10) to listen to Lehigh Valley Discourse with host Alan Jennings. To learn more about the regional health department, visit RenewLV’s Regional Health Initiative page.

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