Black Experience

Transportation, Environment and Health: Inexorably Linked for Black People

The ability to move from point A to point B is of utmost importance for any person living in the United States. Whether the task is looking for a job, picking up children from school, or buying groceries, a well-functioning transportation system allows people to do what is necessary to sustain a safe and robust lifestyle. But, what happens when that same system not only historically divides communities, but also contributes to the declining health of the people who are supposed to benefit from it? Unfortunately, for minority and low-income communities the detrimental impact of America’s transportation infrastructure has been significant.

As the automobile increasingly became the preferred mode of transportation in our nation and the number of vehicles steadily increased, so has the amount of toxic air pollution. This pollution has taken the form of criteria pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxides (SOx) and carbon monoxide (CO), and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Subsequently, the last 70 years has seen a significant increase in the number of minority and low-income communities that have been negatively affected. Currently, more than 70-percent of African-Americans live in counties that are in violation of federal clean air laws and standards. This compares to 58-percent of whites. In addition, African-American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and four times more likely to die from asthma than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The resulting changes in the atmosphere and climate have significant consequences.

The increase in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the growing number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has resulted in troubling weather trends such as crushing heat waves, worsened air pollution, and the spread of infectious diseases. All of these trends have disproportionately affected the African-American community. According to the NAACP’s findings in 2015 “The Hidden Consequences of Climate Change,” heat-related deaths among African-Americans occurred at a rate 150 to 200 percent greater than those for for non-Hispanic whites.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector accounted for 37 percent of all criteria pollutants and 26 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions generated in 2014. These emissions are only projected to increase as the majority of the population growth in the U.S. continues to be concentrated in the cities and suburbs. According to the Department of Transportation’s Beyond Traffic 2045 Report, about half of all Americans live in the suburbs, fueled by a 75 percent population growth since 1980. In addition, spurred on by an increased demand for American-made products, freight volume is projected to grow 45 percent — to a total of 29 billion tons— by 2040. This means that more trucks will be traveling on the nation’s highways, and unfortunately there may be more situations like West Side in Buffalo, N.Y., one of the busiest freight crossings between the two countries. At this site, the Peace Bridge connects Canada and the U.S. The West Side neighborhood is 25 percent black, 39 percent Hispanic, and 43-percent white. In addition, 48 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and particle pollutants were measured at double the EPA recommend limit.

So what can be done to mitigate these environmental impacts? Community members must speak up. Attendance at public meetings for Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), where all of a metro area’s short and long-term transportation plans are discussed, is of utmost importance. People must be there to protect their own interests and to criticize plans when necessary, to hold the decision makers accountable. MPOs, state and federal transportation agencies all are required to take environmental justice (EJ) into account when making decisions. If these plans are not taking EJ into account, community members have a right to call leaders out, or if that does not result in any positive changes, members may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Civil Rights.

Voting for leaders, at all levels, that will promote the development of cleaner fuels or low- or zero-emission vehicles is important, as well. States like California have progressive, forward-thinking policies to replace petroleum and diesel-powered vehicles with cleaner ones such as fuel-cell and electric cars. But, these policies must be embraced across the country. There is also a great need to provide incentives for members from underrepresented communities to purchase clean vehicles. Again, the state of California is leading in this effort, but for a meaningful impact to be made, this initiative needs to be nationwide.

At this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Incorporated (CBCF) Annual Legislative Conference, (ALC) there will be panels on Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 discussing transportation as a civil right. The Center of Policy Analysis and Research (CPAR) at the CBCF and Congressional Black Caucus members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have made this discussion a priority. It is the hope that attendees will come and learn how they can make the transportation system in America environmentally equitable for all citizens.

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Richard Ezike, Ph.D.

State Farm Transportation and Sustainability Fellow, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Incorporated

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