Smarter transportation Is just what the doctor ordered

Sometimes when I am stuck in traffic, I daydream about what I could offer patients if my prescribing privileges were not limited to medication.

Rather than signing off on pills for a pre-diabetic mother, I would love to prescribe a nearby grocery store that sells fresh, affordable produce. For her whole family, I would authorize a park that offers safe exercise and respite from the heat of the city.

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We all could use an Rx for a healthier commute, a path to work or school that features public transit or bike lanes rather than a smoggy, congested highway.

This may sound odd, but if you could see how much preventable suffering is caused by poorly designed cities and environmental injustice, you might share in my daydreams. As a medical doctor representing the Hispanic community, I am acutely aware that asthma, heart disease, and cancer rates are exacerbated by living near highways, ports, and other places where cars and trucks are burning dirty fuels.

Too many Hispanic people are among the 18 million adults and 6 million children in America who suffer from asthma. At least 3,630 people died from asthma in 2013, and this number is expected to rise with climate change, as temperature increases lead to more smog and exacerbate existing health conditions.[1]

Imagine my excitement when I learned that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBig Dem names show little interest in Senate Lyft sues New York over new driver minimum pay law Lyft confidentially files for IPO MORE is considering writing a prescription for healthier transportation systems. Of course, he isn’t calling it a prescription.

It would be a new standard that requires all long-term transportation planning groups—about 400 state and local agencies nationwide—that receive federal transportation funds to track, report and try to reduce carbon pollution, the primary driver of climate change.

If Secretary Foxx issues the standard this year, as an extension of a 2012 transportation law, then transportation planners would be incentivized to improve air quality while creating public transit jobs, lowering transportation costs, cutting commute times, and providing more options for walking and biking. Now those are some side effects I can get behind.

A number of jurisdictions across the country already track carbon pollution, and have developed powerful tools to protect human health and fight climate change.

California, Oregon, and Massachusetts are three states that have already designed long-term plans that reduce pollution using tools such as public charging stations for electric cars, carpooling and teleworking programs, better urban design to reduce travel distances, smarter signaling to smooth traffic flow, and infrastructure that encourages biking, walking, and public transit.

Not only do these changes spur the economy and help the environment, they also save lives. In one recent national study, researchers found that if we reduce vehicular carbon pollution in the U.S. by 75 percent by 2050, we could prevent roughly 14,000 premature deaths over the next 25 years.[2]

While we are talking about climate change, let me tell you what else I know about how a warming climate affects our health: More frequent heat waves, more extreme storms[3], and the spread of tropical diseases such as the Zika virus[4] onto American soil are health risks that every doctor should be aware of.

Any policies that address climate change also support improved human health. If those policies also lead to more bike paths and less time in white-knuckle traffic jams, then sign me up.

Passing a standard to consider carbon pollution in transportation planning, and to seek ways to reduce it, is a no-brainer. We need to bring our transportation systems into the 21st century, incorporating what we now know about preventing climate change and supporting healthy lifestyles.

I want people spending more time in a bike helmet and less time in a car seat, more time on the playground and less time visiting doctors like me. A smarter transportation plan is just what the doctor ordered.

Dr. Rios is President of the National Hispanic Medical Association and the National Hispanic Health Foundation


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.