Environmental Impacts of a Vehicle-Dependent Transportation System

Happy Earth Day, Trans4Mers! We wanted to contribute to today’s conversation by sharing information on how reliance on the personal vehicle has played a major role in increasing dangerous pollutants over the past half-century or more. The good news: public transportation can help curb pollution, create better health for Michigan residents, and create more resilient communities.

An infographic on the environmental ramifications of transportation (created by fellow Liz Treutel)

An infographic on the environmental ramifications of transportation (created by fellow Liz Treutel)

Cheap fuel, open lands and favorable government policies encouraged much of our country to be developed for travel by personal automobiles. While this contributed to widespread growth, it also led to urban sprawl, depleted city centers, increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants.

In recent years, transportation has been the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. A study from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that 28% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were due to transportation emissions. Of that 28%, cars contribute over 33% of the emissions of the transportation sector and light trucks, SUVs and vans contribute 39% of energy consumed.

A graph of GHG emissions by sector from 1990-2006 (source)

A graph of GHG emissions by sector from 1990-2006 (source)

According to the American Public Transit Association (APTA), the current US public transportation system alone saves 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually – equivalent to the electricity generated from every house in Washington DC, New York City, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles. If one person switched a 20-mile roundtrip commute from personal vehicle to public transportation, they would cut down their carbon dioxide emissions by 4,800 pounds per year.  That equates to a two-car household reducing their carbon footprint by 10 percent annually.

Creating strong, multi-modal public transportation systems will reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and help create more resilient communities. Relying only on cars for transportation leaves us vulnerable to disruptions in fuel supplies and other complications. Walking, biking, and public transportation options (which are much more efficient) makes communities better able to withstand external threats.

In addition to climate issues, our reliance on personal vehicles has a multitude of environmental effects that are detrimental to public health. Excess carbon monoxide reduces the availability of oxygen in the bloodstream; nitrogen dioxide reduces lung function and increases chance of respiratory problems; and the combination of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides not only combines to create acid rain, but they  have a history of catalyzing premature death from heart and lung disorders, such as asthma and bronchitis.

These are largely concerns that are pushed onto low-income, urban residents who often bear the brunt of these environmental issues. This contributes to major health concerns; for example, In Detroit, 1 in 3 children in the city have asthma, while the average national rate is 1 in 10.

Traffic congestion on I-94 in Detroit is a hub for hazardous pollutants such as carbon monoxide (source)

Traffic congestion on I-94 in Detroit is a hub for hazardous pollutants such as carbon monoxide (source)

While public transportation can help reduce transportation-related pollutants, improving the efficiency of our personal vehicles can have a significant impact as well. In recent years environmental regulators have put stricter standards on the emissions allowed per vehicle. Due to policies put in by the Obama administration, we can expect that in the next six years, new cars will be required to reach an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 MPG. In June 2009, Congress passed the monumental American Clean Energy and Security Act which would require that all “covered economies” (stationary sources that emit 25,000 tons of GHGs, refineries, importers of petroleum fuel, natural gas distributors, etc.) lower their GHG rate by 83% from their 2005 rate by the year 2050.

What can you do to see how much your transportation choices impact the environment and your community? There are many indicators, such as Earth Day’s ecological footprint indicator from the EPA, to show how much energy you are using, and where you could try to cut down. Better public transportation and heightened environmental awareness are integral parts of our future. It is about living in a world that is more equitable for everyone.

Sources: US Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Hofstra University

Written by: Kajal Ravani, Trans4M Fellow


2 Comments on “Environmental Impacts of a Vehicle-Dependent Transportation System

  1. Pingback: The go!pass – Encouraging Public Transit Ridership in Ann Arbor | Transportation for Michigan

  2. Pingback: Odyssey: Earth Day – T.L. Hicks


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