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August 12, 2020 1:00 PM, EDT

Planning Expert Emphasizes Health Considerations in Public Policy

Older couple getting on busAs adults get older, access to transportation can get more difficult, said Renee Autumn Ray, strategy and innovation leader at Conduent Transportation. (SolStock/Getty Images)

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Public agencies at all levels of government, including the ones related to transportation, should incorporate health considerations into policy decisions, a planning expert said.

Renee Autumn Ray, strategy and innovation leader at Conduent Transportation, recommended public agencies adopt a “Health in All Policies” framework during a webinar hosted Aug. 11 by the Eno Center for Transportation.

Conduent Transportation specializes in technology associated with curbside management, road user charging and transit.

“This really makes sense to a lot of agencies because pretty much every public agency has a foundational principle to administer for the health, safety and welfare of all of the people in their jurisdictions,” Ray said. “Health is kind of embedded, at least at some level, in a lot of the work of transportation and other public agencies.”

Ray discussed points from her recent paper titled, “Increasing Access to Essential Health Functions: The Role of Transportation in Improving America’s Health.” According to Ray, limited access to transportation can negatively impact access to health care services. Her paper said that people who don’t have access to a personal vehicle are often left with slower and less convenient transportation options.

She added that the health-in-all-policies approach can reduce the burdens of social determinants, which for health refer to systemic conditions that enable or inhibit access to care and economic advancement, and can include socioeconomic status, education and access to jobs. These factors can lead to disparities in health and quality of life.

People living in poverty tend to move farther away from city centers, which generally have higher rent rates, and into outskirts that often have fewer transportation services. Ray said the move from city centers affects whether people can work multiple jobs and how much time they have for quality-of-life activities.

“Transportation access is one of the fundamental objectives of the public sector,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center. “It’s also one of the most important ways the government can enable residents to live healthy and productive lives.”

The best way to understand how to do planning is by having local relationships.

Renee Autumn Ray, strategy and innovation leader at Conduent Transportation

Renee Autumn Ray, strategy and innovation leader at Conduent Transportation

Age is also a consideration. Ray’s paper notes that one unintended consequence of extended life expectancy is transportation access can become a challenge. On average, people outlive their ability to drive by up to 10 years.

“When we think about where older adults are living, most of them are living in suburbs that it’s going to be very difficult to run transit through,” Ray said.

Ray stressed the importance of using creative solutions, identifying the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a success story. During the height of the pandemic this spring, USDA expanded a program that allows some subsidized food benefits to be used for grocery delivery or curbside pickup.

Ray, who earned her master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said more people are getting joint degrees in planning and public health. She said the trend of people working across sectors is a positive sign. She also noted that transportation experts and public health professionals sometimes use different terms to focus on similar issues.

“I think one thing that’s important to note is that we use different jargon, but we’re frequently trying to do the same thing,” Ray said. “Getting a framework for some of that jargon, to me, is helpful to understand that there are some foundational principles that lie across all of the work we’re doing in our various public agencies.”

Additionally, Ray stressed the importance of meeting with community members to learn precisely which issues affect them most.

“The best way to understand how to do planning is by having local relationships,” Ray said. “You need to go into different communities that you’re planning for and talk to those people, and then do the things that they tell you. Doing a better job of listening to folks in the community is important.”

Ray expressed optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated challenges will prompt public sector officials to make changes related to improving constituents’ health.

“It’s hugely important now with COVID,” Lewis said, “but this has always been an issue.”

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