Transportation is a major contributor to air pollution, with motor vehicles accounting for a large share of nearly all the major pollutants found in the atmosphere. Trains, planes, trucks, and cars define the transportation system and have large environmental effects. As these effects become known and begin to accumulate in communities, many urban communities resist transportation enlargements such as roads.
I. The Scope of Controversy
III. Sprawl and Cars
IV. Freeways’ Tainted Air Harms Children’s Lungs
V. Environmental Effects
I. The Scope of Controversy
The movement of people, goods, and materials requires large amounts of energy. Much of this energy is reliant on nonrenewable fuel reserves such as gas and oil. They also produce pollution that affects the land, air, and water. It is the issue of air pollution that creates some of the most intense controversy.
Bus and railway depots in urban areas can be sinks of polluted air. These sinks will increase as these facilities expand to meet transportation demands. Increased transportation demand is reflected in longer and bigger traffic jams and gridlock. These themselves increase the amount of emissions that spew into the surrounding air. Many urban communities are already overloaded with transportation modalities that tend to benefit those outside the city. The notorious electrified third rail of the New York City subway system poses a deadly hazard wherever it is exposed. That subway tends to run underground in wealthy areas and above ground in generally lower-income and diverse communities.
Many large cities east of the Mississippi have similar mass transit approaches. Mass transit has often left these communities more exposed to transportation hazards. Some maintain that rich and powerful white communities get better-designed roads with higher safety margins than poor, African American and Hispanic communities. As these emissions have accumulated, and these communities become environmentally self-empowered, the resistance to enlargements in transportation infrastructure is vigorous. Local political battlegrounds may include land-use hearings, environmental impact assessments, and the courts. For example, Portland, Oregon, would like to add a fifth lane to the four-lane interstate highway to accommodate commuters from the outlying, predominantly white suburbs. They want to add a lane in a Portland community that is lower income and very diverse and that already has large amounts of air pollution. These issues have been debated in a series of community and city meetings, with the city trying to persuade the community that the land expansion is important. The neighborhoods strongly resist and do not think anything could mitigate environmental effects enough to reduce the area’s 14 percent asthma rate.
Another example is in Seattle, Washington. After years of controversy and public ballots, Seattle is building a better mass transit system. Because there are significant environmental effects, the U.S. Department of Transportation had to perform an environmental impact assessment. Early plans replicated the U.S. East Coast pattern of delivering infrastructural improvement based on the wealth and race of the community. Because the environmental impact assessment did not adequately address environmental justice effects, they had to do it all over again and make significant changes in the transit plan. The litigation and result held up about $47 million in federal aid until the environmental assessment was performed to a satisfactory level.
The environmental effects of mass transit and private transportation are well known. Both transportation types are increasing, and communities are increasing their resistance because of the environmental effects. There have been attempts to handle aspects of this problem with federal legislation. Although the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 strongly reinforced the Clean Air Act requirements through its planning requirements and flexible funding provisions, technical uncertainties, conflicting goals, cost-effectiveness concerns, and long-established behavioral patterns make achievement of air quality standards a tremendous controversy. Techniques of estimating (and forecasting) emissions from transportation sources in specific urban areas are still controversial and generally inaccurate at the individual level. The number of monitoring stations and sites remains low, which often forces the citizens to monitor the air themselves. The lack of monitoring sites is a key issue for most U.S. environmental policy. Most industry self-reports its environmental effects, and many industries are not even required to get any kind of permit. The more monitoring sites the more potential liability the corporation faces. Communities and environmentalists do not trust government and industry when monitoring is not allowed or is insufficient. This greatly inflames any controversy but particularly air pollution controversies around transportation’s environmental effects.
Transportation activity contributes to a range of environmental problems that affect air, land, and water—with associated effects on human health and quality of life.
Noise is probably the most resented form of environmental impact. Despite the money devoted to noise abatement, these measures are still limited in their effects. Numerous studies have been conducted from economic points of view, but their findings can be seen as somewhat controversial. Environmental effects of noise can affect nesting sites for birds, migration pathways and corridors, and soil stability. Noise can also decrease property values.
III. Sprawl and Cars
U.S. cities are characterized by a separation of work and home, connected mainly by cars and some mass transit systems in denser urban and older suburban areas. The desire for a single-family detached home away from work, and increasingly away from other trips like shopping and school, requires large amounts of land and therefore has greater environmental effects. Cars and trucks on the road today are some of the heaviest contributors to poor air quality and global warming. Illnesses such as cancer, childhood asthma, and respiratory diseases have become increasingly linked to emissions from transportation. This problem is furthered by poorly designed transportation systems that contribute to sprawl, causing freeways to become more congested and polluted. Despite improvements in technology, the average fuel economy of vehicles is less than it was in the 1980s, which also means they generate more pollution. The expansion in the production of hybrid vehicles and technological improvements in conventional vehicles could raise the fuel efficiency of new vehicles to 40 miles per gallon within a decade and 55 miles per gallon by 2020 according the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization.
IV. Freeways’ Tainted Air Harms Children’s Lungs
Southern California contains some of the dirtiest air in the United States. There are enormous traffic problems, large polluting industries, and a rapidly increasing population. The smog can extend for hundreds of miles out in the Pacific Ocean, and hundreds of miles inland to the majestic Sierra Mountains. The public health risks extend to wherever the smog accumulates. The regional air quality control boards have been the subject of intense debates. At one time all 15 scientists in the Los Angeles air basin quit, resigned, or were terminated because of the failure to set enforceable and strong clean air standards. The issue of air pollution harm is therefore a very intense controversy.
University of Southern California (USC) researchers found in January 2007 that children living near busy highways have significant impairments in the development of their lungs. These impairments, or tears and scars in the lung tissue, can lead to respiratory problems for the rest of their lives. The 13-year study of more than 3,600 children in 12 central and southern California communities found that the damage from living within 500 yards of a freeway is about the same as that from living in communities with the highest pollution levels. For communities in high-pollution areas and living near highways there is a huge increase in risk of respiratory illness. The greatest human damage is in the airways of the lung and is normally associated with the fine particulate matter emitted by automobiles. The research is part of an ongoing study of the effects of air pollution on children’s respiratory health. Previous study findings show that smog can slow lung growth, and highway proximity can increase the risk of children getting asthma.
Groups of fourth-grade students began the study, average age 10, in 1993 and 1996. The USC research team collected extensive information about each child’s home, socioeconomic status, and health. Once each year, the team visited the schools and measured the children’s lungs. Results from the study in 2004 indicated that children in the communities with the highest average levels of pollution suffered the greatest long-term impairment of lung function. In the new study, children who lived within 500 yards of a freeway had a 3 percent deficit in the amount of air they could exhale and a 7 percent deficit in the rate at which it could be exhaled compared with children who lived at least 1,500 yards, or nearly a mile, from a freeway. The effect was statistically independent of the overall pollution in their community. The most severe impairment was in children living near freeways in the communities with the highest average pollution. According to the USC study, those children had an average 9 percent deficit in the amount of air they could expel from the lungs. Lung impairment was smaller among those who moved farther from the freeways.
V. Environmental Effects
Each major highway or other transportation project effects the environment in a variety of ways. The most immediate negative impact on the human environment is the destruction of existing homes and businesses. Longer-term effects include noise, air pollution, and potential loss of living quality. Wildlife and plants suffer from habitat destruction and various forms of pollution.
In addition, ecosystems suffer fragmentation; habitats and ecosystems that had worked together are divided. Migratory species may be separated into genetic islands, reducing future biodiversity and leading to local extinctions. Transportation projects may also necessitate the draining or contamination of wetlands, which are important for flood control and filtering and cleaning water. Current laws require that wetlands be reclaimed or created somewhere else. Critics claim these laws are poorly enforced and have many exemptions.
Transportation systems show little signs of abating in size and scale. Their environmental effects have serious public health consequences and implications for sustainability. The air emissions from these systems accumulate, and more communities are now knowledgeable about some of their effects. The environmental impact statements required by many of these projects are issues in their own right. Mass transit and low-impact transportation modalities (like bicycles) are not accommodated in the United States. The current lack of integrated environmental land-use planning in the United States also prevents the development of alternative modalities on the scale necessary to reduce environmental effects. The current healthy-community movement and policies do emphasize low-impact and healthy alternatives and the physical design necessary for people to engage in these activities safely, but all these are still theoretical.
Controversies about roadway development and expansion will continue as environmental controversies.
Robert William Collin
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