Untangling Major Societal Issues on the Road to Environmental Health

Like a lot of issues around transportation, environmental health is complicated. More than access to health care or the quality of air due to emissions, the concept takes on a lot of big topics. Environmental health starts with planning and designing innovations for equity, consistently revisiting the impacts of decisions, and restructuring the systems which harm both humans and the environment. Instead of moving a road back to avoid erosion, environmental health re-envisions the idea of a road altogether and thinks about mobility that results in the smallest footprint on the Earth and the largest boost to human health, all without leaving anyone out.

Environmental engineers aim to support the well-being of people and the planet everywhere the two intersect. In doing so, these people have improved countless lives through innovative systems for delivering water, treating waste, and preventing and remediating pollution in air, water, and soil. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Environmental Engineering for the 21st Century: Addressing Grand Challenges outlines the crucial role for environmental engineers and highlights opportunities and solutions for transportation throughout, but most especially in a section on creating efficient, healthy, resilient cities. Likewise, the National Academies’ Environmental Health Matters Initiative (EHMI) convenes government, industry, and academic leaders to share ideas and form connections that inspire the development of solutions to our most pressing environmental health challenges.

Technology-enabled transportation services–like ride-hailing, delivery apps, automated vehicles, and e-scooters–have revolutionized the way we move. But changing how we get around also impacts our environment. How does ride-hailing affect air pollution in our communities? What are the environmental impacts of having packages delivered to our front door?

To convene leaders in the fields of transportation and the environment, a workshop called How We Move Matters: Exploring the Connections between New Transportation and Mobility Options and Environmental Health will look into major changes in human and goods mobility and their impact on environmental health, current and potential policy solutions, real-world experiences and opportunities, and setting priorities along with information and research needs. The workshop will be held as a series of six virtual sessions in July to explore different aspects of these intertwined problems.

Daniel Greenbaum, President of the Health Effects Institute and chair of the How We Move Matters event committee, says “By connecting the people who are working on health effects with those working on mobility, we are hoping to find better insights for both. The pause in transportation that we are seeing as a result of COVID-19 is an opportunity for us to get out ahead of all of these changes to find out what research and what data is needed to understand the indicators of what’s likely to happen as these mobility changes occur.”

The event will explore, at a high level, the interrelationships of our choices in mobility and environmental health in urban and surburban areas. This means looking at what choices we have now as well as what might be missing and what those choices mean for environmental health, particularly local air quality, as well as a some of the waste stream issues particular to package delivery. Many, although not all, of the aspects mentioned in this blog will be addressed in the session.

Untangling the “wicked problems” together
There is a sweet spot between technology, improved mobility, and environmental health. To get there, requires weeding through the “wicked problems” as they are known in planning and policy. These are so entwined with our daily lives that they are difficult to define and solutions may be heavy with unintended consequences.

“These problems aren’t static and we have to understand them in the context of the community. If we can’t agree on what the actual problem is, we cannot find a solution. These problems are hard to solve and their causes and consequences involve many uncertainties, but inaction also involves costs and risks” notes Serena Alexander, assistant professor at San Jose State University and research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute.

In the next 5 to 10 years, we can utilize climate action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation through a variety of strategies. For instance, “the environmental benefits of automated vehicles (AVs) are not guaranteed and will only be realized if they are shared, electric or otherwise more efficient than current vehicles. In other words, to realize the environmental benefits of AVs, manufacturers, planners, researchers and communities should work together. Additionally, research about policy and planning should be parallel with technological research. There is a gap there now and early career researchers have an opportunity to really think like an interdisciplinarian.”

She adds, “In the U.S., climate action planning has been done from the bottom up. Communities have taken leadership in the absence of consistent and meaningful federal level climate action. As a result, there is a patchwork of climate planning practices across the nation, and different levels of government are trying to figure out how to work together and get what they need from each other. Federal level leadership can change these dynamics, and potentially improve our chances of effectively harnessing environmental benefits from deployment of AVs.”

Alexander presented Local Climate Action Planning as a Tool to Harness the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Mitigation and Equity Potential of Autonomous Vehicles and On-Demand Mobility during a poster session at TRB’s 100th Annual Meeting in January.

Keeping up with the always-shifting landscape of transportation
Steps to make local, state, and regional transportation systems more cohesive are laid out in a TRB consensus study from the National Academies, The Role of Transit, Shared Modes, and Public Policy in the New Mobility Landscape. Realizing the full and potentially transformative benefits of shared services and transit would require, among other benefits, providing travelers with real-time or near-real-time information on all of their travel options, including cost, duration, reliability, and impacts on concerns such as carbon emissions. More resources to help move us in this direction can be found in a TRB blog post on new mobility.

Ridehailing apps like Uber and Lyft are creating changes in access and land use beyond roadways in both airport and public transportation. Transit agencies are finding both benefits and challenges in developing relationships with the technology as explored in TRB’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Partnerships Between Transit Agencies and Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). The report presents data and information requirements for all entities involved in partnerships.

Airport may be losing revenue from airport parking and other ground transportation services as a result of shifts in how people arrive and depart for their flights. TRB’s Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Rethinking Airport Parking Facilities to Protect and Enhance Non-Aeronautical Revenues identifies near-term and long-term solutions to help airports of all types and sizes repurpose, renovate, or redevelop their parking facilities to address the loss.

Changes to mobility extend beyond available technology to our understanding of the markets. Demand forecasting methods have tended to see aviation as a completely separate option from its key domestic competitor, the automobile. With changes in technology and demographic conditions, the analytic framework presented in ACRP’s Air Demand in a Dynamic Competitive Context with the Automobile facilitates comparison of the two competing modes as well as comparing consumer choice for shorter-range air trips.

An individual’s demographics affect their long-term values, their current attitudes, and the type of neighborhood they choose to live in. Each of these factors also affects their likelihood to ride transit. TCRP’s Understanding Changes in Demographics, Preferences, and Markets for Public Transportation explores how changes in demographics, traveler preferences, and markets for public transportation affect transit ridership in the present and the future.

The beginnings of addressing transportation as a social determinant of health
TRB’s 2019 Conference on Health and Active Transportation offered a framework and innovative scalable steps to chart the future of active transportation.

Successful partnerships between transportation and health care organizations are one way to overcome the transportation-related health challenges in communities. Innovative case studies along these lines are part of TCRP’s Guidebook and Research Plan to Help Communities Improve Transportation to Health Care Services. The pre-publication report also provides a research plan that outlines future research needs and priorities to better understand the complex relationship between transportation and health care. Improving these relationships is the focus of a May TRB webinar and a related blog post.

Presenters at a TRB webinar explored how the federal government and state departments of transportation are researching and considering the health impacts of transportation investments. Planning decisions, including how programming analyses and design considerations can encompass more than air emissions, noise, and water quality were also addressed.

To draw attention to health determinants, inequities, and challenges among urban populations and to explore challenges, the National Academies hosted a workshop in 2019 called Health-Focused Public–Private Partnerships in the Urban Context. The workshop aimed to illuminate some of the intervention strategies that have been designed to attenuate these urban health issues and highlighted the importance of public private partnerships and urban-level governance in remediation efforts, including a session focused on the effects of food, agriculture, and transportation systems specifically.

Airports conduct economic impact analyses, employment studies, and environmental studies. Going further, airports can gain a more complete understanding of the variables affecting their surrounding communities by measuring quality of life (QOL) as discussed in a TRB webinar. Community QOL is a multi-dimensional concept that refers to a community’s perceived and actual well-being. It also reflects a broad range of indicators. The webinar featured research from ACRP’s Measuring Quality of Life in Communities Surrounding Airports.

Local air quality is an important part of environmental health
One of the most challenging environmental issues facing the aviation industry today is the impact of jet fuel emissions on the global climate. ACRP offers Alternative Jet Fuels Emissions: Quantification Methods Creation and Validation Report as an easy-to-use tool that airports can apply to their emissions inventories to capture the air quality benefits of sustainable alternative jet fuels.

Significantly reducing lead emissions from gasoline-powered aircraft will require the leadership and strategic guidance of the Federal Aviation Administration and a broad-based and sustained commitment by other government agencies and the nation’s pilots, airport managers, aviation fuel and service suppliers, and aircraft manufacturers, says Options for Reducing Lead Emissions from Piston-Engine Aircraft, a TRB consensus study from the National Academies. While efforts are underway to develop an unleaded aviation fuel (avgas) that can be used by the entire gasoline-powered fleet, the uncertainty of success means that other steps also should be taken to begin reducing lead emissions and exposures, the report says. A TRB blog offers more information on avgas lead emissions.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals with almost ubiquitous exposure in the United States. Considering the vastness of this exposure, it is difficult to know who, when, how, and what to test, as well as the risks of testing. An ongoing study from the National Academies will provide advice for clinicians about PFAS testing and how test results should inform clinical care. Additionally, it will examine the health outcomes associated with PFAS exposure.

ACRP’s Use and Potential Impacts of AFFF Containing PFASs at Airports explores the potential environmental and health impacts of PFASs typically found in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs). The report describes methods to identify areas of potential concern at an airport, offers a screening tool, and offers ways to implement management and remediation practices.

The health impacts and risk from six criteria pollutants are explored in ACRP’s Understanding Airport Air Quality and Public Health Studies Related to Airports. The 2015 report provides an overview of the topic, responses to frequently asked questions, and critiques of studies available at the time of the publication.

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the United States by 2050 is feasible. Doing so would not only help address climate change but also build a more competitive economy, increase high-quality jobs, and help address social injustice in the energy system, according to Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System from the National Academies. A TRB blog post explores a number of available resources around electric vehicles on the roads, on the rails, and at sea.

Public transportation has long been a method for passengers to reduce their individual carbon footprints. Transit agencies are increasingly taking action for sustainability. The TRB Transit Cooperative Research Board’s (TCRP) pre-publication draft of An Update on Public Transportation’s Impacts on Greenhouse Gas Emissions provides updated national analysis of public transportation’s role as a climate solution by documenting its 2018 greenhouse gas emission impacts. One of many positive findings in the report is that public transportation vehicles emitted 10% less CO2 per passenger mile in 2018 than 2008.

Curbing waste fits into the equation
State departments of transportation (DOTs) are subject to Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements for water quality improvement that are implemented through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Approaches for Determining and Complying with TMDL Requirements Related to Roadway Stormwater Runoff describes a robust approach to determining the pollutants of concern. It also describes how to assess the contribution of the roadway while understanding other important factors that affect overall pollutant loads, including adjacent land uses and watershed conditions and characteristics.

Almost every country prescribes sterilization, incineration, or other disposal methods for recyclables arriving on international flights. ACRP’s Recovering International Recyclables from In-Flight Service finds that supply chains, advanced stakeholder engagement, value chain collaboration, and a globally standardized and adopted approach may be needed to increase and better monetize the recovery of Non-Contaminated Recyclable Materials.

Connecting policy and economic incentives
There is often a disparity between the state DOT goals for priced managed lanes, which often include increasing transit and HOV use, and the public assumption about those goals. A TRB webinar built from research presented in NCHRP’s Emerging Challenges to Priced Managed Lanes to help clarify effective practices as well as effective communication.

Reducing fuel consumption and emissions through environmental standards is the focus of a number of National Academies reports, including Reducing Fuel Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicles, Phase Two: Final Report and Assessment of Technologies for Improving Light-Duty Vehicle Fuel Economy—2025 – 2035.

Get involved with TRB
TRB has a long history in advancing best practices in integrating transportation and health goals, as told through a Centennial Paper on the topic.

TRB’s Critical Issues in Transportation 2019 poses a series of questions that can be addressed during the next decade through research and policy to help society prepare for upcoming challenges. The report outlines issues in sustainability, resilience, and public health among others.

We want to hear from you. You can get involved with future Cooperative Research Program work. Look for ongoing information on calls for panel nominations, new projects, requests for proposals, and problem statement research ideas.

Become a friend of one of TRB’s many standing technical committees working on these complex topics by convening conversations and reviewing research. Some suggested committees are listed below. Keep up with all the latest news by subscribing to TRB’s weekly newsletter.

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Beth Ewoldsen, Content Strategist
Transportation Research Board
Published May 3, 2021

This Summary Last Modified On: 4/29/2021

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