Catherine Ross Tells U.S. House of Representatives: ‘Link Transportation, Housing, and Health for Infrastructure Redesign’

Ross discussed central issues about transportation and equity in an engaging conversation with members of the House Committee on Appropriations Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

An illustration of a futuristic people mover overlaid on a photo of a house in a neighborhood in East Atlanta.
Photo Illustration by Jessie Brandon

May 4, 2021 | Atlanta, GA

By Zoe Kafkes

Catherine Ross grew up spending summers with her grandparents on a farm in Scobey, Mississippi. Since her grandparents did not have a car, she remembers waiting for the few neighboring farms with a car or truck to come ‘round up’ anyone who wanted to go to town for the day.

“They used to call it ‘hitch a ride to town’ and you could buy candy there,” Ross said. “That was a big deal.”

“The reality was that you had to wait until everyone was ready to go back to the farm. That reality is still reality for a lot of people. They depend on others who have access to services. If no one was driving, you didn’t go.”

Decades later Ross, now director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) and Regents Professor in the School of City and Regional Planning in the College of Design at Georgia Tech, sat at her computer screen and testified before the United States House Committee on Appropriations Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. 

The technology has changed, she said, but the lack of access is still an issue for most of the country, including for aging grandparents in rural areas as well as cities. 

“For seniors and many of these folks who live in rural areas, this is their life,” she said. “They were born there, they’re going to stay there, they’re there. They are captive. They might as well be in prison. Their prison is laced by lack of mobility.”

Equity and Access

Ross emphasized the right to mobility when she testified before Congress. Approximately 80% of all surface transportation dollars are spent on highways with only 20% on transit, she said.

“This spending pattern has resulted in reduced mobility and accessibility options for many of our citizens, including those who are older, poorer, of different ethnicities, those residing in lower-income neighborhoods, students, and persons living in rural and sparsely populated geographies,” she said.

Many goods and services are mobility-dependent, Ross said, and citizens require mobility in their pursuit of social and economic activities.

Her testimony included that the average family spends 17% of its income on transportation, while extremely low-income households can spend over 50% of their income on transportation. But there is the potential to create positive change, she said. For others living in transit-rich locations, transportation costs can be as low as 9%.

Linking Transportation, Housing, and Health

Transportation is not Ross’ only area of expertise. Ross published Health Impact Assessment in the United States (2014), a book on the cross-disciplinary method of analyzing transportation and health referred to as HIA. Her career has long involved linking transportation, housing, and health.

“We can improve transportation, housing and health simultaneously by looking at legislation and the development of policies that link all three rather than thinking of them as separate entities,” she said. “My notion is a more comprehensive policy that looks at these three areas simultaneously because they are linked.”

Ross and a team of research scientists at CQGRD work on research projects that demonstrate the intersection of transportation, housing, and health.

One such project was a Health Impact Assessment for the Atlanta Beltline. Her team examined the transportation and health implications of reinvesting in the Beltline. It was the first regional model of integrating HIA in the country and created a new way to make sure that transportation tactics supported community health.

“Transportation decisions are often made without understanding the impact of a project on community health,” she said.

Other research centers at Georgia Tech are also paying close attention to mobility and access. CQGRD has a collaborative project with the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (CIDI) creating a dynamic web-based accommodation system to expand access for the aging. As they develop age-related limitations, seniors will be able to work with service providers to identify community living accommodations and solutions, linking transportation and health needs together.

Echoing her testimony, the goal is to expand access for all.

Ghosts of Infrastructure Past and the Near Future

Ross also testified that prior infrastructure legislation was harmful to access. The 1956 Highway Act used federal funds to build highways directly through cities, typically through communities of color, Ross explained to the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

“These highways brought more congestion, more pollution, and greater health risks. The highway system is now over 50 years old and in dire need of repair and redesign,” Ross said.

With investment in roads and little investment in transit, Americans are being left behind. 

“We’re almost forcing everyone to drive,” said Ross in the New York Times. “The choices that individuals make are deeply shaped by the infrastructure that we have built.”

Ross built on the choices of the past when she shared her vision of the future with the subcommittee.

“In many communities, old infrastructure must be replaced and repurposed, including underutilized highways and land, which can be redeveloped for different purposes and different kinds of transportation,” Ross said.

“We can use urban infill to connect housing, transportation and health simultaneously. The integration should make housing and transportation accessible to everyone–from highest to lowest income and regardless of age or ability,” she said. 

“There is an opportunity to redesign the places we live in by linking transportation and housing,” said Ross. “This gives us the ability to undo some of the damage done to communities under urban renewal.” 

Ross imagines an infrastructure that provides access to all—physically and digitally. Her testimony explained the need for greater connectivity, including the provision of broadband and digital capacity to communities. 

“We can remove existing barriers to economic development, create more equitable communities and build better,” Ross said.

Media Inquiries

Ann Hoevel

Director of Communications 
College of Design 
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