The Unequal Distribution of Vehicle Pollution

by Lex Frazier

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists has confirmed a fact that is common knowledge to affected neighborhoods: communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions are disproportionately exposed to air pollution from vehicles. The study, which utilized EPA and Census data, found that communities of color in those regions experience, on average, 66 percent more air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than white communities.

When the researchers separated their sample by race, they determined that the average Latino resident experienced 75 percent more air pollution than the average white resident, while the average Asian American resident experienced 73 percent more and the average African American resident experienced 61 percent more. Additionally, 85 percent of people who live in the least vehicle-polluted areas are white.

This disparity is especially problematic because of its health implications. The type of pollution highlighted in this report, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, has been linked to heart and lung disease, among other illnesses. It is responsible for most of the three to four million deaths that occur worldwide as a result of air pollution.

How did such a catastrophe happen? It comes from decades of policy at all government levels that placed highways in communities of color while refusing to provide them with public transportation. While we may not be able to remove the massive amount of infrastructure that is causing this problem, we must try to mitigate air pollution in other ways and encourage better policy for the future.

One of the report’s key suggestions was that “regional, state, and local governments must target actions to reduce emissions in overburdened communities.” We at OTNA are advocating one way of accomplishing this goal: making more efficient use of freight transportation methods. If we can be smarter about how we transport goods, we can reduce vehicle air pollution in these affected areas.

To that end, we have started several projects to enable more environmentally conscious freight projects. We are creating the Triple Bottom Line Freight Data Bank to compile the environmental data that will facilitate green planning across the freight industry. We are also providing Triple Bottom Line Freight Benefit Cost Analysis, which will encourage individual infrastructure projects to be more intentional about their environmental impact.

While we cannot make centuries of discrimination disappear overnight, we can and will do our part to lessen the burden of air pollution on these communities for future generations.

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Do BCAs Really Add Up?

When we consider the complex mechanism that is “infrastructure investment,” and ask ourselves the big questions: Are we moving in the right direction? Are we answering the needs of industry and community? Are we truly investing? Or are we just stemming the tide? It then proves worthwhile to shine a light on the process by which such decisions are made.

OTNA Freight Transportation Lifecycle Project is all about shining that light.

One of the tools central to transportation and land-use planning is benefit/cost analysis (BCA). In the coming months we’ll be showcasing the thoughts, papers and works of the people who have watched, studied and applied BCAs themselves. We’ll be bringing together their perspectives and experience to share with their colleagues in the transportation sector.

From where we stand, the BCA needs replacement. We’ve begun gathering the intelligence and expertise it will take to develop an alternative —a logical, comprehensive tool that could drastically affect a positive and unprecedented outcome in the very near future.

But first things first. Realizing that job #1 is to prove to you, along with the transportation brother and sisterhood of our entire continent, that the BCA, as it has traditionally been applied, stands as a major impediment to a transportation system capable of answering the very robust set of 21st century societal needs.

Let’s start here: From A FEDERAL ROLE IN FREIGHT PLANNING AND FINANCE by the RAND Corporation, (Sandra Rosenbloom and Martin Wachs).

Even if they (public sector agencies) hire outside analysts, agency staff may not fully grasp what costs and benefits have been included—and which have been left out. They may not realize how nonmonetary costs have been monetized (or not). In addition, it is not clear that federal agencies reviewing project proposals based on BCAs and related economic analyses currently have the skill to understand the intricacies of these approaches.

That’s just one piece of a set of BCA weakness spotlighted in the monograph. And given that the RAND Corporation is considered by many to be one of the cradles of modern system analysis, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate source to challenge the use of BCAs from the standpoint of pure logic.

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