Our “Go-To” Profession on Health

David M. Schwegel, PE, PTOE, ITE So Cal

Walking within the Boise River Greenbelt reminded me of Past International President Steven Hoefner’s 2003 article “Transportation and Health” – two seemingly unrelated topics. Hoefner notes – ‘traffic engineers plan, design, and evaluate walk-able communities that encourage walking, fight obesity, and reduce cases of Type II Diabetes.’ Hoefner also notes – ‘traffic engineers ease tension, stress, and anxiety for commuters by employing innovative solutions like signal coordination, congestion management, and transit-oriented development.’ A 2007 US News and World Report cover article “Why we are losing the war on traffic?” underscores this need, emphasizing commuter stress in congested urban areas ranks near death of a family member among “ultimate stressors.”

In 2006, I participated in the California Infrastructure Report Card (www.ascecareportcard.org) project – evaluating aspects of the State’s infrastructure – bridges, dams, drinking water, levees, parks/open space, transportation, wastewater, – and calculating the required investment to achieve an acceptable grade of “B” or better. Traffic engineering and transportation have a clear connection. What about traffic engineering and parks/open space? I explained to the executive committee that traffic engineers design and evaluate walk-able communities. I referenced Steven Hoefner’s and Dan Burden’s articles on this topic. Committee members were convinced – traffic engineering is a “go-to” profession on parks/open space. I co-chaired the parks/open space committee. This role reinforced to me how effective transportation planning preserves farmland, safeguards natural resources, and protects fragile ecosystems. On the health front, it fights air pollution, free up time for family/leisure activities, and boosts quality of life.

Recent participation in Sacramento-based sustainability societies – Sacramento Sustainability Forum (www.sacramentosustainabilityforum.com), Valley Vision (www.valleyvision.org), Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS) (www.ecosacramento.net), Greenwise Sacramento (Greenwise) (http://greenwisesacramento.net), and the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance (SARTA) (www.sarta.org) – reinforced the connection between traffic engineering and health. Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Initiatve has five divisions – (1) Energy, (2) Waste & Recycling, (3) Water & Nature, (4) Urban Design & Green Building, and (5) Green & Clean Technology. I challenge each of you to go to the Greenwise discussion forum and post traffic engineering solutions in each of these five areas.

The September 30, 2010 Greenwise meeting packed downtown’s Crest Theater. It featured celebrities – Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat; Hot, Flat, and Crowded) and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Friedman emphasized “the time to act is now!” to preserve Earth’s health. Schwarzenegger took it a step further – Earth’s health has gotten so out of hand that the resulting air pollution kills 18,000 Californians every year. ‘Wow! That’s much higher than the 4,200 Californians killed annually in vehicle collisions. At least 40 percent of air basin contaminants are due to automobiles. As a traffic engineer, these air pollution and collision fatalities are on me. I must get traffic engineers actively engaged in Greenwise.

The October 23 Greenwise meeting featured Dr. Oz on health. Mayor Johnson emphasized the exorbitant tax burden of poor health choices. I learned firsthand, an ambulance trip plus an emergency room visit easily cost $7,000. Mayor Johnson notes – ‘of California’s 58 counties, Sacramento is the third most obese.’ You’ve got to be kidding! We have a wealth of recreational resources – the 33-mile American River Bike Trail, the 47-mile Pioneer Express Equestrian Trail, Folsom Lake, and Lake Natoma. Numerous world-class ski resorts are within two hours of downtown. A delegate explained, “Yes we have great resources, but they are under used. They must become ingrained in our way of life.”

Twenty-minute communities have essential needs and services within a 20-minute walk of home. This was one subject of the October 21 Sacramento Sustainability Forum (SSF) meeting. Putting this SSF meeting and the October 23 Greenwise meeting together reminded me, ‘I was recently among Sacramento area’s obese.’ Then I moved to the 20-minute community of Brea in Orange County California. Key needs – work, City Hall, the library, the Brea Mall, the two-story Target, Sprouts Farmers Market, the post office, banks, the car repair shop, Kinko’s, Starbucks, the transit center, and numerous restaurants were all within twenty minutes of home on-foot. I was not trying to lose 70 pounds that year. It just happened. Walking was just an ingrained way of life for me in that community.

Let’s strengthen the perception of traffic engineering as a “go-to” profession on health! Continuing education, society collaboration, and public education are key. Specifically:

  1. Familiarize ourselves with and participate in the development of the latest ITE manuals and data collection sources on mixed-use communities. Formulate trip generation comparisons between these mixed-use communities and traditional single-use condominium communities. How do these pedestrian and vehicle trips correlate to health and quality of life?
  2. Familiarize ourselves with the latest software packages like TRAFFIX that calculate carbon footprint in addition to Level of Service. How does a development type impact carbon footprint? What does this mean in terms of stress reduced and lives saved?
  3. Become actively engaged in local societies that have interests in health and sustainability. Some of the Sacramento societies are identified above. There are many others both local to Sacramento and throughout the Western District. Understand the real-life situations each society addresses. Let them know how traffic engineers help. Encourage partnerships with ITE.
  4. Speak at Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, planning commission meetings, and related events. Educate delegates on traffic engineering innovations – roundabouts, transit-oriented developments, and mixed-use communities. Explain how they clean up the environment, preserve natural resources, and boost quality of life. Use virtual reality simulation tools whenever possible. Gauge public acceptance of such innovations. Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ (SACOG’s) (www.sacog.org) recent Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) 2035 Update meetings indicate public acceptance of mixed-use transit-oriented development. Roundabouts improve mobility and reduce intersection conflict points from 32 to 8, saving many lives. Movies humorously depict them as complex inescapable traffic circles. Public acceptance is more difficult to achieve.
  5. Model healthy sustainable lifestyles by using available walking, bicycling, and transit commuting opportunities. If available in your region and feasible for your own family, economic, and geographic situation – consider living in a mixed-use live-able walk-able master-planned 20-minute community. Consider organizing a bike-to-work challenge at work. Some of my co-workers biked to work and during lunch as a matter of routine. Others needed a company-wide bike-to-work challenge to consider this mode of travel. This challenge convinced me to make a 39-mile one-way commute to work on my birthday.

Together, we will significantly boost traffic engineering as a “go-to” profession for health.

Questions and comments may be directed to David Schwegel (davidmschwegel@aol.com, 425-466-5677).