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A Tangled Web: Transportation, Air Quality, and Public Health

It’s no secret that the transportation sector is a major climate driver. It generates nearly 30 percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions, the largest proportion of all economic sectors. On top of the issues stemming from climate change, at face value, pollution from transportation creates poor air quality. This poses a public health issue and contributes to environmental injustice across the country.

Health Impacts of Fossil-Fuel Transportation

Fossil-fueled transportation is responsible for more than half of U.S. nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions as well as harmful levels of particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and air toxics like benzene and formaldehyde. When exposed to sunlight, NOx and VOCs create ground-level ozone–and smog–which may cause acute respiratory problems across the population and particularly in groups with existing respiratory conditions. A recent study revealed that ozone and fine PM from vehicle emissions in 2016 led to an estimated 7,100 deaths in the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. All states in the study experienced substantial health impacts from vehicle emissions and were recommended for local action on transportation pollution.

And the health impacts of transportation pollution aren’t borne equally across the population. Highways and other hazardous infrastructure have historically been disproportionately sited in low-income communities and communities of color. This has led not only to racial and economic health disparities, but also to community disruption. Many of these harmful planning decisions were intentional and based on racist policies, bisecting neighborhoods and limiting residents’ access to important resources. Overall, studies have shown health and economic burdens from transportation and pollution most heavily impact non-white populations, and particularly Black Americans.

North Carolina as an Example

North Carolina is a heavily car-dependent economy and has its fair share of transportation-related issues. Echoing the national proportion, North Carolina’s transportation sector is the leading cause of state greenhouse gas emissions. The state has one of the nation’s largest highway systems, with nearly 80,000 miles of roadway from the mountains to the coast. Lifestyles are vehicle-intensive–particularly in the rapidly growing urban areas. These metro centers are encircled by large highways that are burdened by traffic as more residents pour in. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) across the state continue to increase by the year, and as cities sprawl outward, we can only expect extended commutes and time spent on the road.

All of this vehicle travel impacts North Carolinians’ health. Two of the largest air quality concerns in the state are ground level ozone and PM pollution. Both of these pollutants are linked to three of the five leading causes of death in the state: chronic lower respiratory disease, heart disease, and stroke. Cities and counties across the state suffer from elevated pollution, with eight major areas experiencing more than a month of “moderate” or worse air quality in a year. Numerous others experience two or more weeks of unhealthy air quality. [Note: The EPA designates “moderate” air quality as acceptable, but posing health concerns for certain sensitive individuals. Higher designations threaten a range from sensitive populations to the general population.]

So what can we do to remedy the damaging impacts of vehicle emissions? How can we work to protect the climate, environmental and human health? A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Environmental Law Center noted that we need a whole portfolio of policy action to truly make change–there isn’t just a single solution. In the near term, one of the biggest things to do would be reducing driving and VMT. The study’s VMT scenario involves increasing public transit, denser land use planning, constraining parking, and economic incentives to limit certain types of trips. With aggressive VMT reduction, we could minimize 2025 emissions by 10 percent. Land use planning is important in terms of designing more walkable communities, with options for biking and easier access to transit and important resources. Increasing dense planning would help reduce sprawl and reduce highway and expansion and use. Enacting these measures would also improve resource access across historically marginalized communities.

Economic measures might include road use charges (i.e. tolls) that discourage frequent, potentially unnecessary trips, increasing incentives for carpooling, and offering more telework opportunities. We saw how working remotely changed the face of transportation during the early peaks of COVID-19; with millions teleworking full time, traffic was minimized and commutes shortened, and there were some decreases in air pollution across the country.

A bit slower process but still essential is the transition to electric vehicles, which–so long as it’s paired with moving to a cleaner electricity grid–could significantly reduce emissions. North Carolina already has ambitious goals and planning for zero-emission vehicles and transportation-based greenhouse gas reduction through Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 80. These goals were recently bolstered further by Executive Order 246, which created even more ambitious emissions reduction targets and accelerated the clean transportation transition. The new targets look to increase registered ZEVs to 1.25 million by 2030, ensure that 50 percent of new vehicle sales are ZEV, and calls for a new statewide plan to reduce VMT and increase ZEVs on the road.

And North Carolina is not alone. A dozen other states like Vermont, Colorado, and Maryland have also adopted low-emissions and ZEV programming, and others are enacting steps to reduce VMT. We look forward to seeing progress on vehicle emissions, climate, and public health in the coming years.

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