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Key takeaways from the 2021 Transportation Research Board annual meeting

Last month’s 2021 Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual meeting was as insightful and packed with events as any other, even though it was held entirely online. As with almost every aspect of our daily lives, COVID-19 forced us to gather virtually, but we were glad to be able to do so.

It’s hard to visualize what the future of transportation will hold, though we are working hard to meet the challenges ahead. However, one thing is clear. Our old methods of planning and running transportation systems are likely to change as dramatically as our travel behavior has in the last year. A recent survey presented during the TRB’s annual conference found that one in five people who previously drove to work every day plan to  work from home at least once a week after the pandemic subsides. Over a third of those surveyed also anticipate flying less often.

I was pleased to participate in one of the TRB’s highest-attended workshops, on January 21st. The session, “Identifying Systemic Transportation-Related Health Effects of COVID-19,” focused on the implications of COVID-19 on under-served and under-resourced communities as they disproportionately experience adverse health outcomes related to transportation access and exposures.

This session included a transportation and health overview with short presentations on topics such as access, equity, active transportation, injury, pollution and infectious disease. After opening remarks from Toks Omishakin, director of the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS), who focused on how the state is centering equity in its policies and actions, I moderated a panel discussion about public agency policies and perspectives. As part of this panel discussion, Anna Zivarts from Disability Rights Washington, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, made a compelling case for putting people who don’t drive at the center of multimodal transportation planning. She explained that people in our communities who are already walking, biking, or using public transit have the most insights to share about how our transportation systems must evolve to make it easier to travel safely. Her comments echoed what I heard from U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a recent media interview. Buttigieg said, “We think trains, planes and automobiles. But what about bikes, scooters — wheelchairs, for that matter? And getting around in a way that's a little closer to home.”

Another panelist, Heidi Simon, from the National Safety Council (NSC), described the NSC’s Vision Zero initiative to provide strategies that are designed to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2050. 

Key elements of this ambitious public safety initiative include:

  • Advancing life-saving technology in vehicles and infrastructure;
  • Doubling down on what works using evidence-based strategies; and
  • Creating a positive public safety culture.  

It was an honor to participate in this important workshop and panel discussion. We applaud NSC’s Vision Zero initiative and look forward to helping our clients and partners to implement the tactics and strategies that will make our transportation system more reliable, accessible and safer for all.