April 12, 2007 The Pump Handle 1Comment

By James Celenza

Driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most “polluting” daily activity, yet in many cases, individuals have few alternatives forms of transportation. Thus urban planning and smart growth are imperative.
— American Academy of Pediatrics Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children

Public Transit is an Environmental Health Issue.

The built environment is a summarizing concept that links issues like housing, transportation, neighborhoods and jobs. Safe and efficient public transit is a key component of healthy environments.  How so?  Numerous studies implicate motor vehicle air pollution as a significant contributor to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially among children. Air pollution in Southern California communities had been shown to affect lung development, raise the risk of asthma, and increase school absences due to respiratory illnesses by the Children’s Health Study. The latest finding from the study team zeroes in on the impact of exposure to traffic-related pollutants and shows that kindergarten and first-grade students who lived near busy roads experienced a higher prevalence of asthma.

Transportation systems that do not provide people with convenient, practical access to employment, medical care, and other necessities undermine their health in numerous ways.  Perhaps most important, the transit mismatch between where people live and where jobs are available, as well as the inability to get to good jobs, consigns many populations to ongoing poverty,  the principal predictor of poor health. For these reasons, the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (RICOSH) is advocating for improved public transit as critical to environmental and public health.

Strategic proposals

According to the EPA, Rhode Island is in serious non-attainment of limits set on smog pollution to protect public health. At the same time, Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), the provider of public transportation options for the entire state, is facing serious budget problems. Strengthening RIPTA can help improve Rhode Island’s air quality and improve our state’s economy at the same time.

The Grow Smart with Transit, by the Transit 20/20 working group, Vision for Providence 2020 report created by Sasaki Associates and the General Assembly Special Legislative Commission to Study Transit Service all stress the importance of RIPTA service and light rail in metro area economic future and job growth. (See Grow Smart RI for more.)

The new Public Transit Alliance, an informal coalition of public health and environmental groups, has come together to accomplish both immediate and long term public transit needs.

  • Encourage firms and municipalities that offer free parking for employees and visitors to offer as well public transit incentives based on EPA’s “Best Workplaces for Commuters” program that is recommended in the State Guide Plan.
  • Empower a statewide planning mechanism to address multi-city planning projects.  As a first step, restore the statewide planning council to a position where it can take on multi-city planning projects like improving public transit in the metro area and throughout the state.
  • Encourage transit-oriented development. Require regional planners and developers to emphasize pedestrian mobility in all new developments. Require a public transit promotion plan as part of any publicly funded (through tax stabilization) developmental proposal.
  • The General Assembly should establish a Transportation Committee to harness all transportation related legislation under one dedicated committee.
  • Establish an ongoing Public Transit Commission for Providence metro area to review of all transit and traffic issues. This commission may include business, public health, RIPTA, RIDOT, labor, state and city planning, elderly, disabled, affordable housing advocates, high school students, environmentalists, public members, riders, etc. A key role of the commission would be to increase coordination between RIDOT, RIPTA and the City of Providence. And to address the role of Kennedy Plaza as a central transit hub.

A subscript, transit and diesel

Most public transit systems use diesel powered engines.  Some have suggested that support for expanded public transit is counterproductive.

Diesel powered vehicles and trucks do emit more particulate than cars, though the more cars on the road the more particulates in general.  In comparison gasoline engines emit other significant air pollutants such as ground level ozone and carbon monoxide and benzene.  Extended travel in gasoline powered motor vehicles produce benzene air levels second only to smoking. Gasoline engines emit more carbon dioxide the principal global warming pollutant.
Public transit advocates campaign for cleaner transit as well as more transit: such as diesel oxidation catalysts, and diesel particulate filters (DPFs); low sulfur  fuel, and alternative fuels: compressed natural gas (CNG) and or electric and or hybrid systems.

James Celenza is Director of Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (RICOSH): 741 Westminster Street, Providence, RI 02903; 401-751-2015; jobhealth [at] juno [dot] com. The New Public Transit Alliance can be reached at NuPTA [at] googlegroups [dot] com.

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